Monday, May 17, 2010

Dialogue Tags

“Never use a verb other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue.” – Elmore Leonard

I know Mr. Leonard is right when he goes on to say, “The line of dialogue belongs to the character, the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But said is far less intrusive than grumbled, gasped, cautioned, lied. I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with ‘she asseverated,’ and had to stop reading to get the dictionary.”

I also know he’s correct when he says to never use an adverb to modify the verb “said.” According to him, “To use an adverb this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin.”

When it’s obvious which character is speaking tags are not required. However, there are many times tags are needed for clarity. Good writers show the emotion (or lack of it) by the actions or the expression of the character; they don’t need tell the reader how the speaker’s words were delivered.

These rules are ingrained in my brain. Yet when I’m revising my manuscripts, I find that I’ve not only given in to the temptation to use more descriptive tags, but that I’m also guilty of committing the mortal sin of adding an “ly” modifier. I changed many of them to “said” or removed the tag altogether. But I left a few unchanged.

I’ve decided that maybe Elmore Leonard is a bit too strict when he uses the word “never.” In surfing the web, the general consensus is that the “said” tag should be used at least 90 percent of the time. That means that it is OK to use other tag words as long as they are few and far between. It's also important to be sure that the tag is a doable action.

If, like me, you give in to the occasional use of a more descriptive tag, you may enjoy visiting “550 Alternative Words for Said” at The list also includes adverbs and phrases to use with other words for said. It’s quite an extensive, fun-to-read list even if you’re not guilty of using alternative tags.

As a writer, how do you handle tags? As a reader, do dialogue tags other than said draw you out of the story?

Before I go, I’d like to thank Carol Kilgore at Under the Tiki Hut for the Sweet Blog Award. Her posts are always entertaining. I particularly enjoy her top ten lists.

I’d also like to thank Ranya Iyer from Coffee Rings Everywhere for the Sunshine Award. She certainly brought sunshine into my day when she awarded me this special honor by saying, “for being such a wonderfully positive person- if I hadn't seen one particular post of her's several months back, I would have thought she didn't have a care in the world, except to spread happiness.” Rayna blogs from Bombay, India. Her posts are interesting not only for learning about cultural differences but for discovering our similarities as well.

I hope you’ll have an opportunity to visit both of these wonderful blogs.

Thank you for stopping by today.

Tags: Elmore Leonard, dialogue tags, alternative words for said, , Carol Kilgore,Rayna Iyer


Elizabeth Spann Craig/Riley Adams said...

I've noticed my editor *adding* basic dialogue tags to my writing: usually "said_____". Apparently, I don't write enough tags and the dialogue is confusing! So I'm trying to keep an eye on it.

Mystery Writing is Murder

Mason Canyon said...

Congratulations on the awards, well deserved.

Dialogue tags do help a reader sometimes if the conversation is confusing. But brief bits of conversation usually do well without them.

Thoughts in Progress

Joanne said...

I enjoy reading passages without tags, when the dialogue is so effective I just know who is saying what. In my own writing, it's pretty much only "said," and even then, I try to not use it more than necessary.

L. Diane Wolfe said...

Thanks for the link to 'said' alternatives! I tend to use colorful words, although I've learned to axe the 'ly' ones.

Karen Walker said...

I pretty much stick with "said."
I get frustrated when I'm reading and it isn't clear who is speaking to whom, so I appreciate writers who pay attention to this, me included.
congrats on your awards, Jane.

Clarissa Draper said...

I think that Leonard's right. I have been editing a lot of work lately where different writers over use the different dialog tags and I find, as a reader, it's irritating. I think if you vary your voice enough, a reader should know how it sounds without being told.

Besides, if you write:

"What are doing with my diary? Put it down!" she said angrily.

If you couldn't figure out she was angry from the words, they would probably have to go back and read the dialog again to get the true feeling.

Great blog. You really got me thinking.


Laura Marcella said...

I do notice adverbs after "said" in novels, and it doesn't bother me, but it often seems redundant. If the dialogue is strong enough, you shouldn't need the adverbs! Even though I love adverbs, I don't use them in my own writing because "said" after dialogue looks and reads so much better. he way I see it, if you need to write "said angrily," then you probably need to rewrite the dialogue to show the character's anger.

Congrats on all your awards and to the recipients!

Elspeth Antonelli said...

Congratulations on the well-deserved awards. Dialogue tags drive me crazed. I'm giving special notice to them in every book I'm reading right now. I think I've got it under control, but only time will tell.

Darcia Helle said...

I have learned to stick mainly to the "said" tag. I notice that, when I read, I slide right over "said". However, other tags sometimes stop me and take me out of the story - especially things like "Yes," she giggled - or "Yes," he laughed. You can't giggle or laugh a word and that makes me crazy!

Anonymous said...

I had to back through my MS and replace many crazy words with just plain "said." I stood back and was amazed at how much better it read.

Stephen Tremp

Helen Ginger said...

I use tags to establish who's speaking, then try to use action tags to keep the reader aware of who's speaking as the conversation goes on, only occasionally using "said". The fewer tags, the better.

Straight From Hel

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

Elizabeth, I tend to use too many. It’d be nice to be able to balance them perfectly.

I agree, Mason and Joanne. It’s fun to read a conversation where you know exactly who’s speaking by the words they say.

You’re welcome, Diane. I think a few colorful words can be effective. I wonder if the “said rule” is more relaxed for YA fiction.

Karen, sticking with said is certainly the preferred method by most of the editors I know and have read about.

Good example, Clarissa, and good point. I know I’d prefer not to irritate my readers or force them to have to reread something in order to get the effect I was going for.

Laura, I like adverbs, too, but you’re right, a writer shouldn’t need to use them.

Elspeth, I’m noticing tags more than I used to – they haven’t driven me crazy yet, but I do find different approaches interesting.

Agreed, Darcia! I did mention in the post that if you are going to use a more descriptive tag, make sure it is a doable action.

I hate to admit it, Stephen, but editors, agents, and published authors seem to know what they’re talking about when they advise using only “said.”

Helen, it sounds like you’ve mastered ‘proper tagging techniques.’ Hopefully, I can say that to myself one of these days!

KarenG said...

Whatever one does, it needs to flow. Anything that distracts the reader is bad. That's my only rule!

Jane Kennedy Sutton said...

KarenG - that's a very good rule!

arlee bird said...

I need to start paying more attention to the dialogue tags in what I read as well as what I write. I normally don't notice them, but I guess that's because they are unobstrusive. I sometimes get confused in long stretches of untagged dialogue and have to retrace who is saying what. That's when a few more tags would be helpful.

Tossing It Out

Anonymous said...

As a reader I love tags and collect interesting ways of saying said. I find that they make the dialogue more interesting and help shape a clearer picture in my mind.

As a writer trying to work with today's publishing trends, I'm learning to weed them out of the story. Some people like them, some don't, and I'm sure in twenty years time we'll have a whole new list of things to do or not do when writing.

Thanks for an interesting post.

The Old Silly said...

I am in total agreement with Elmore. As an editor I delete any and all adverbs from the tags, and as a writer I avoid them like the plague. If the "way" in which it is said is not obvious in the prose and the statement, then the writing is not strong enough.

And kudos on the awards, Jane!

Michele Emrath said...

I certainly don't have a problem with other words for said. In fact, when a writer should use "asked" and uses "said" instead, it posotively bothers me!

But I would go for the adverb before said rule.


Sandy Lender said...

Dialogue belongs to the characters. You can't change the character's manner of speaking because you want to punch up the way he/she talks so you can edit the attribution.

Using "said" is boring and redundant. Being creative with other words for attribution is part of good writing. It can be done like poetry, and good writers do it well. Good writers also show who's talking with dialogue through character development. Lazy readers can miss it by skimming, but most will catch it and really enjoy the experience.

Avoiding those adverbs is wise...
I now have the SchoolHouse Rock song "Lolly Lolly Lolly get your adverbs here" going through my head!
(brain splinter, right?)
From Sandy Lender
"Some days, you just want the dragon to win."

Carol Kilgore said...

Thanks for the plug!

I agree about Elmore Leonard. Great tips from him, but "never" is a little strong.

Nancy J. Parra said...

Hi Jane,

When I first started writing the "rule" was never to use said. It was "dull" writing. So I created a five page list of tags to use instead. Then a few years later the "rule" was to only use said as anything else was ridiculous. (So, I tossed out the pages.) My last editor told me I use too many saids and I needed to change them as they were repetitive. Sheesh!
So, now I use action tags. For example: "Hey Mary," he leaned against the door and waited for me to get up.

Jan Morrison said...

I like using said or like Elizabeth forgetting about it all together and thinking the reader can figure out who's talking. And adverbs, phbbbtttt! or whatever it is Bill the Cat used to say. We used to play the game of Tom Swifties when I was a kid. Tom Swift was a kid's book hero like Harry Potter who spoke 'adverbially'. My favourite one was "I dropped the toothpaste" Tom said crestfallenly.

Roland D. Yeomans said...

"Great post," Roland said earnestly.

Couldn't resist. I know. I should have.

Sometimes I do not use tags at all. If there are two people talking, you know who's who for a couple of exchanges.

Then instead of using "said," I use a sentence of action. Such as ... Sam pointed the gun at me. "Those are mighty sad last words."

You know Sam said that so I do not have to tag it.

You have a thought-provoking, lively blog. Thanks for the effort that takes, Roland

Christina Rodriguez said...

That alternative word list is great! A great tool for shaking things up if the dialogue tags get too repetitive.

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