JM Williams

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The Problems with Quirky Dialogue Tags


This is just bad advice. Said will never be dead, because said is better writing.

I saw this image come across my Facebook feed the other day and felt it would make a good little writing post. There were a lot of comments on the post, and even the ones that argued against fancy dialogue tags didn’t seem to understand why that was an important rule.

While it is important to know the rules of writing (or any other activity), it is equally important to know why the rules are important. If you don’t understand the why, you might get duped into following a bad rule (such as “said is dead”). Also if you don’t understand the rule, you won’t know when it is appropriate to break the rule.

I have worked with writers and editors who have learned the rules, but did not understand them. One editor called me out for my use of adverbs in a flash story (there were only 7 in the whole piece!) without considering and recognizing that there was no alternative language to be used in their stead (how else would you describe an animal “slowly rising to its feet”?). In order to use our words at their best, we have to understand the reasoning behind the writing rules we follow.

In this case, some of the commenters mentioned one of the reasons why complex dialogue tags should be avoided: it can be jarring, can draw the reader out of the POV. Often times the use of “said” becomes invisible, the reader only noticing the who and not the how.

But there is a more fundamental problem with these dialogue tags, one that I have often seen in writing I have edited and reviews. It is the same fundamental problem with adverbs behind the rule to avoid them as well, especially -ly adverbs and especially in conjunction with dialogue tags. The problem is they are usually unnecessary.

Good writing is that which examines each and every word, forcing each to earn its place in the prose. Redundancy and over explanation should be avoided when at all possible. There are two ways that dialogue tags become unnecessary and unwanted: 1) they are redundant, 2) they tell rather than show.

In the first case, complex dialogue tags are often unnecessary, or should be unnecessary. There is no need to use the word “shouted” if the dialogue is “Get off my lawn!”–the exclamation point and what is being said tells the reader this is being shouted. So any extra dialogue tag is unwarranted. The best way to convey a sense of how something is being said, is to write the dialogue in a manner that will show this. Instead of “stuttered,” you can write it into the dialogue–“I-I D-don’t n-n-know.” Same with things like “huffed” or “stammered”–try “I…didn’t…see…where he went,” she said, struggling to catch her breath. Good writing should convey the meaning inherent in the tag in the dialogue itself, rendering it redundant.

Which leads to the second issue, telling instead of showing. Telling the reader that the character “fumed” doesn’t actually show anything. You are telling the reader, “this character feels angry,” and generally speaking, it is better to show emotion. Instead of “I hate this!” he fumed, try “I hate this!” he said, throwing the book hard into the ground. Give your reader a tangible action to witness, if it is important to call any attention to emotions or  behavior. (It typically isn’t, as the dialogue should carry the tone mostly without actions. Nothing is worse than having an action after every line of dialogue.)

Lastly, some of these are simply not dialogue tags. A person cannot physically laugh, giggle, or grunt out words. That is contrary to what these words mean.  If you want to show a character laughing in conjunction with a statement, that requires a separate sentence. Not “You look like you’ve been having quite a day,” he laughed–but rather “You look like you’ve been having quite a day.” He laughed. That is the only logical way to use such verbs, based on their very definitions. Also, thinking tags such as thought, wondered, or pondered are not speaking and thus cannot replace said, as this chart seems to suggest. That’s just silly.

I think there are a lot of writers out there who are hell-bent on doing things their way, rules be damned. Indeed some of the comments on the Facebook post were along the lines of “Even famous writers break the rules, so what do they matter, and who are these academics to tell me what to do.” That’s a fine attitude to have, if you don’t care whether you’ll be published or not.

Yes, established writers do break the rules. But often it is because they know how to break the rules because they understand the reasoning behind the rules. And of course, any writer or editor cannot catch every mistake. This is not the same as it not being a mistake. And this does not mean an amateur writer can get away with the same behavior.

A new writer is under much greater scrutiny than a veteran. All you are doing, by using flamboyant dialogue tags in your writing, is throwing up red flags and giving editors an excuse to reject you. Don’t do it.

Of course, like any rule, there are times when this one should be broken. Maybe you’re short on space, or the dialogue just can’t convey the exact meaning you want. There are times when a more meaningful alternative might be appropriate (but never quaked, belted, requested, or numerous other bad examples in this list). Like with adverbs, you should consider carefully each and every violation of the rule, ensuring it is justified (you should, in fact, be doing this with every single word in your prose, but we are all only human).

Well, those are my thoughts. I hope they help you improve your writing. I know thinking about these sorts of things helps mine!

Thanks for reading.


7 Responses to The Problems with Quirky Dialogue Tags

  1. Absolutely true, these are great points. I was also thrown into the “said is dead” debacle for a while until my editor explained the rules and the why “said” can be better than other dialogue tags. Now I’m more aware of when I want to add that little bit of fanciness and when it’s unnecessary.
    We spend too much time learning the rule and less understanding it. Great post bro

  2. Pingback: Five Links Friday 3/16/18 | Write Good Books

  3. Good comments. When I review my writing I also consider whether a tag is even needed, e.g., I scowl at the mirror. “You talkin’ to me? You talkin’ to me?”

    • Right. It all goes back to the idea of redundancy, which I think is one of the key things to look for when writing and editing.

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