Tuesday, May 21, 2013
By OFW chief editor:
Carlos J Cortes And Renée Miller
Published: March 27, 2013
The best is “said.” Simple, perhaps boring, but preferable to chortled, moaned, growled, or laughed. Many writers feel the word is dull and replace it with what is thought to be a more exciting word. Sometimes a more interesting word is all right, but most times, it doesn’t benefit the dialogue.
Readers accept invisible tags like “said” because they hardly notice them when reading. Words like whispered, shouted, cried, etc. draw the reader’s attention from the dialogue to the tag, which yanks them from the story.
Dialogue tags such as these are often called “said bookisms.” They give our prose an amateur feel; perhaps not to readers, but definitely to editors and other writers. While our readers might not realize these tags are a no-no, they’ll still draw attention, especially if the writer is fond of using them.
Said bookisms pull the reader away, distracting her and slowing down the story. Writers should avoid littering dialogue with phrases like murmured, shouted, whimpered, inquired, queried, or muttered. Use of these words illustrates that we have a solid relationship with our thesaurus but not a good grasp of fiction writing. If the dialogue is strong, we don’t need more than “he said” or “she said.” If it is not strong enough, or if it doesn’t clearly show the tone, we must rewrite the dialogue, rather than adding “said bookisms” to give it a little boost.
Of course, we can use these tags occasionally. As with all things, moderation is key. We should think of them as decoration, like jewelry. We wouldn’t wear ten earrings in one ear, or two rings on each finger, and expect to be elegant. Like jewelry, we use “said” to add to the finished product, and usually we reserve them for special occasions. Characters do sometimes shout, and they might even mutter, but most will not do so all the time.
Before we move on, we’ll acknowledge that many bestselling authors use outlandish tags all the time. It doesn’t make it right, and it doesn’t mean a new writer will sell their work if they do the same. It means that many of these writers are good enough at the other stuff to get away with silly tags now and then. Writers should work at making sure the dialogue is so strong that “said bookisms” aren’t needed.
Silly or Melodramatic Tags
Tags that create a melodramatic or silly image for the reader should be avoided. When we use tags to add tone or color, such as “blazed,” “hissed,” or “shrieked,” we should first make sure that it’s physically possible for the character to do what we’re describing.
“So are you,” he laughed.
“I am not.” She hissed.
“Go on,” he muttered.
When we try to do these things while speaking, the difficulty becomes apparent. We cannot laugh a line of dialogue, nor can we hiss it. When we see dramatic tags like these, we first ask ourselves if the character can really say the line the way we’ve written, and if not, determine if we must remove the tag, change it to another tag like “said,” or use action instead.
He laughed. “So are you.”
“I am not.”
“Go on.” He waved a hand, dismissing her.
Verbs used to describe an expression, such as “grimace,” “sneer,” “smile,” “frown,” and “grin,” are not good dialogue tags. These are physical movements. We don’t grimace our sentences, nor do we frown them. When rewriting, examine all dialogue tags and, if the tag contains an expression, we should rewrite. If the character must sneer, then the line should be written so it is possible.
Don’t: “That’s what your mother said,” he sneered.
Do: He sneered. “That’s what your mother said.”
Here we have a subtle, yet important distinction. On the first line, the comma before the tag implies that the speaker sneered through the delivery of “That’s what your mother said.” On the second, he sneered and then delivered his line. In this last instance, the emphasis starts with the expression and then shows the language to back up its meaning.
Of course, we can simply delete it, trusting that the reader will get that the sneer is implied. The dialogue and character actions before these lines should be enough to enable the reader to see the sneer without our telling him about it. This is true for most tags where we’ve inserted an action rather than an actual description of speech.
The word “hissed” can be avoided completely because it’s not physically possible to hiss and speak, except for cats and snakes. When rewriting, search for hiss and rewrite or delete every time. Editors will appreciate this little courtesy. (Even the reptilian kind.)
Renee Miller & Carlos Cortes
Because of the period here, it suggests she said her three words. Then for some unaccountable reason she hissed.
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