You don’t say: More thoughts on dialogue tags

From Rick:

In my 3/8/2021 post I talked about overusing “said” in dialogue tags, and in the second sentence of that post I said, “I want to make it clear that I AM NOT ADVOCATING REPLACING “SAID” WITH OTHER WORDS as a matter of course.”

What prompted this post was my reading an article that came out six years ago on Beth Hill’s blog.

The link is below. Regardless of your position on the use of “said” in dialogue tags, you should read this article because it lays out the reasons why you should think carefully before you decide to use alternative words for “said” and before you consider adding further attributions to your tags.

SMILING OR LAUGHING DIALOGUE

Unlike many of the articles out there on the subject, this one gives a clear rationale for its advice on this sometimes hotly debated topic, instead of merely listing the reasons you should stick with “said” and “asked.”

The most used argument I’ve heard against the use of “said” all the time is that “said” is boring. With so many alternative and more descriptive words, why not use them? Why not use “told,” “spoke,” “queried,” “questioned,” to name just a few?

And what’s wrong with “she said breathlessly” or “he spoke excitedly”?

I’ve heard the argument that most readers don’t care about such trivial things. But what this argument really implies is that readers don’t know the difference between good, mediocre, and bad writing and that the story is all that matters.

If that’s your attitude toward your writing, then that’s your prerogative. Good luck with your sales. And if sales don’t really matter that much to you then, again, that’s your prerogative, and nothing I say is going to matter anyway.

But if you take your writing seriously and you truly want to give your readers the best possible experience, then you should pay attention to Beth Hill’s article and advice. At the very least, you’ll have a better understanding of the reasons behind it. After that, it’s your decision what to do with it.

But I’m not going to end with that. There are many cases where a tag word other than “said” is acceptable and even warranted. I’ll be the first to agree that certain speech verbs like “murmured” and “whispered” are much better than “he said with a murmur” or “she said in a whisper.” I’m sure you can think of others.

By that reasoning, you might be tempted to ask what’s wrong with “told,” “stated,” “spoke,” “explained,” “questioned,” “queried,” and similar words because you believe it’s good to vary your writing. Nothing is wrong with those words when they’re used in the right places. But for the most part, dialogue tags are not the best place to use them.

Why is that? Well, if you think about it, these words are mostly TELLING words. If you’re dealing with a question, the question mark (and often the way the sentence is worded) already SHOWS you that it’s a question. Using words like “questioned” and “queried” are overkill. Remember that the PRIMARY PURPOSE of a dialogue tag is to tell you who is speaking, not how the words are delivered. That’s why it’s called a tag. And the only reason to use “asked” instead of “said” is mostly convention when writing a question. The following two sentences are equivalent:

>> “Where do you think you’re going?” the security guard asked, blocking his path.

>> “Where do you think you’re going?” the security guard said, blocking his path.

The first will be preferred by most, but I can guarantee that if you write the second, someone in your critique group will question it or even argue that you must use “asked” not “said.”

However, I’d argue that this sentence can be better written this way:

>> The security guard blocked his path. “Where do you think you’re going?”

And this one is weaker than the original because the tag is now unnecessary:

>> The security guard blocked his path. “Where do you think you’re going?” he asked.

Following this reasoning, when we say the speaker “told,” “stated,” or “explained,” then chances are it was already obvious in the dialogue that the speaker was stating or explaining. Again, it’s a case of show AND tell instead of show OR tell. You don’t need to do both.

Sometimes we might need to say that someone “spoke up” or “added.” But at the same time, you should ask yourself if those are already implied in the dialogue or whether you could do it better, but there will be occasions when you will need words like that.

Here’s what you should always keep in mind when it comes to writing advice. There are TWO types:

(1) Advice from those who believe there’s only one best way to write.

(2) Advice from those who are trying to help you make your writing stronger.

In the first case, these people giving advice are usually blindly regurgitating what they’ve been told by others without considering whether it applies in a given case, like avoid -ly adverbs in your writing, or those who will argue in the security guard examples above that “said” is unacceptable in the tag.

In the second case, these people understand the difference between strong and weak writing. Weak writing isn’t bad per se; it’s just that it can be better. None of the security guard example sentences are inherently wrong. It’s more a matter of some being better or stronger, or in the case of “said” vs. “asked,” a matter of the writer’s preference.

And I’ll leave you with this:

Your writing must first be about the STORY because without story all you have are words on the page that take the reader nowhere. But the WORDS are a close second because they are what carry the story. Poor word choice, incoherent writing (which includes poor punctuation), and annoying writing habits will obscure the story and pull the reader out of it.

You must weigh all of these factors when listening to advice (even mine). Never blindly follow advice but make sure you understand the reasoning behind it, as Beth Hill’s article on dialogue tags seeks to do. Once you’re armed with all the information, then you (not others) will be the one best suited to make those decisions that will give your writing the proper impact.

—Rick

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