Thursday, March 25, 2021

She asked, she answered, opined, rued and dithered.

At the risk of blowing up the internet, what are your views on dialogue tags other than "said"?

From what I've read, there seems to be two schools of thought:


1. "Said" becomes almost invisible


2. "Said" is overused, writers should vary their dialogue tags.


Similarly, is using "asked" telling/unnecessary due to the "?" used (and therefore better replaced with "said")? Thank you very much for your insight!


I'm glad you asked, she replied.

These questions come up a lot, she opined.

And yet, never laid to rest, she rued.



This kind of question falls under style, and style preferences vary publisher to publisher and certainly agent to agent.


Most publishers have style guidelines to help authors get their finished manuscripts into good shape.


But I can't think of a single time I've passed on a manuscript cause the writer opined or fretted or worried rather than said.


Those problem (and to me they ARE problems) came with enough other stuff that I could simply say "lack of tension, lack of narrative drive" and be done with it.


My goal is to find or maybe help refine a ms that is an immersive read. That means the prose is like a comfy duvet that you crawl under, get warm and go off to a new world. No bumps or lumps to distract you.


So, to answer your question, there is no real right answer here.

Does the word pull you out of the narrative? she asked.

Do you notice it?


If you're noticing things that aren't important, that's when you want to revise.



E.M. Goldsmith said...

Common question. Beautifully answered.

Early in my journey I had an editor tell me to stick with said for the main. For the reasons Janet stated. Worried, fretted, opined can pull you from the story.

You want the reader to hear the dialog as if they were that proverbial fly on the wall - with who said what being clarified by the said and no more than that.

The advantage, I think, is that if you stick with said for the main - it makes fretted, opined, worried and all the other heavier ways a character might say something have greater emphasis. Here they are jabbering back and forth and one of them suddenly opines. That would then draw the reader's attention to that particular bit of dialog, make them remember it.

My two cents. Hope everyone is well. I miss all of you. A LOT.

C. Dan Castro said...

Thanks Janet. Does the dialogue tag pull you out of the story? THAT is the question. (Not "To be or not to be.")

For my (alleged) style, I use "said" the vast majority of the time, but prefer to use "asked" when it's a question. When I see a question getting "said" by a character, that actually distracts me. (At least sometimes; how would I know if it distracts me every time?)

A final thought for this early ramble of mine: every once in a while, I do stray from "said." One word I like is "hissed." You can hiss a word like "Yes!" and it's different than just saying it, whispering it, etc. However, I've seen debate online that suggests use of "hiss" is an amateurish no-no. Anyone agree/disagree?

Craig F said...

Overuse of anything other than "said" drags the reader away from where the story id going. It might be cute once (hiss, but after that it is an anchor.

Trying to get too cute will have the reader ask WTF and be knocked away faster than hitting a bookmark while speed reading.

The real question is if you should put a period after said all the time. If there is continued dialogue by the same character, it seems like a pothole in the road of the story.

I am half-vacced and dithering into the limbo land, have a good day folks.

Katja said...

I totally agree with what E.M. Goldsmith opined...

Use certain dialogue tags rarely and make them more meaningful that way, just like dialogue itself (too much talking and babbling isn't great either).

I read the first few paragraphs of someone's work recently and it consisted of almost all dialogue and sooo many different and 'exotic' dialogue tags, it was too much (it was annoying, admittedly, when she exclaimed when there was "!" anyway).

Katja said...

Also, often NO dialogue tags are the answer but the character's action should follow instead as a new sentence right after the dialogue.

Colin Smith said...

If I might throw my 2 cents into this... I believe this discussion falls into the realm of "show don't tell." Dialog tags can be a form of telling. But, just as there's a time and place for telling, so there is for dialog tags. Instead of fastidiously sticking to a rule (of which there really aren't any, right Jeff Somers?), think artistically. What sounds better?

Betty folded her arms. "Fine. Be like that."

"Fine. Be like that," Betty said.

"Fine. Be like that," Betty huffed.

"Fine. Be like that," Betty said angrily.

The first one takes more words to say, but, I would argue, engages the reader's imagination more. I'm not telling the reader how to hear Betty's dialog. I'm letting the reader color the tone of Betty's dialog through reading her body language and the context of the conversation. Sometimes that works. Other times, you might need some dialog tags and adjectives to help. Sometimes a simple "said" is enough. And, to Katja's point, sometimes no dialog tags are necessary--especially when it's a fast-paced back and forth between two people. My point is that this is an artistic decision, not a matter of rules and formulas.

All the best with your writing, OP! 😁

Unknown said...

I think the real problem with fancy dialogue tags is that it can be tempting to use them to shore up weak dialogue. If the dialogue itself is good, it should communicate what it needs to without any extra support, most of the time.

Steve Forti said...

I agree with a few points above. I prefer "said" to disappear to the ear. Fancy tags distract (they didn't when I was younger, but once you notice it, it's impossible not to every time), and should be the exception. Many times no tag is needed. And the examples given of the action being a separate sentence is the way I prefer to go. Plus just making your dialog strong enough and the character defined well enough that their speech gives the emphasis on its own.

Also, if it's an audiobook narrated by Wil Wheaton, I cannot listen to it after the way he said "Dahl said" so often in a grating way in "Red Shirts".

Katja said...

Colin, ha, that's what I meant with no dialogue tags but the character's action - how Betty folds her arms. Yeah, of course, the action is also needed BEFORE the dialogue sometimes. Depends on the situation.

And why are you now talking about dialog and not dialogue? To confuse me?

Colin Smith said...

Katja: I'm bilingual: British and American. 😉

Kitty said...

an immersive read. ... No bumps or lumps to distract you.

The description of a good story.

Lennon Faris said...

I think adverbs and metaphors also fall under this categorization.

I love a good metaphor but sometimes they go far! Just tell me the story, dang it!

Timothy Lowe said...

But I like adverbs, he argued clumsily.

Brittany said...

"Said" disappears on the page, almost like headers in a script.

It does *not* disappear when spoken aloud. There are a couple of times when I had to abandon an audiobook completely because the repetition of "X said" "Y said" made it absolutely impossible to process anything else. (I have some auditory processing issues, but the Spouse does not and had the same reaction.)

Just something to keep in mind.

Android Astronomer said...

I agree with what Colin vociferously asseverated.

AJ Blythe said...

I think it's all been said ;) My preference is for no dialogue tags if at all possible. I've given up on books where every dialogue tag was a different "-ed". Not a fun read when you are grinding your teeth at every spoken word.

ADGraves said...

I feel like reading becomes more engaging when the basic dialogue tags aren’t used. Said, asked, questioned, yelled, etc. become uninteresting to me and take away from the emotional state of the character.

I write with the basic tags, but I use them sparingly. However, I don’t think an agent would ever decline a query or request based on the dialogue tags that seems to be an easy fix.

NLiu said...

I remember an English class where we were admonished for using 'said' and told to come up with more "creative" dialogue tags.

Pretty sure that English teacher never became a published author.

(Also if you stare at the word "said" for more than five seconds it starts looking like a spelling error. Try it. Hours of lockdown fun.)

Nice to see everyone! Miss you all.

Mister Furkles said...

As a reader, I notice that many authors use an action, gesture, or expression of the speaker rather than a simple tag. The problem with simple tags other than 'said' is that they are telling the reader what to think.

"I shouldn't be smoking these cancer sticks." Philip Morris dropped his cigarette on the sidewalk and stepped on it.

Or there are always those other creative tags:
"Hurry!" Tom said quickly.
"Slow up." Tom drawled.
"The milk is spoiled." Tom said sourly.

Please do not tell the readers what they should conclude or think. Better to use tags, if at all, that provide description of action. Maybe:
"I hate you." Sally shouted from the front porch.


Katja said...

Hey there, Mister Furkles. 👋
I don't understand what you mean by not telling the reader what to think by using actions or certain tags?

You mean.. like.. judgemental writing?

If yes, I don't see how this is happening by 'painting a picture' about an individual action of one individual character?! 🤔 It still looks and feels to me like it is the opinion and choice of Philip Morris.

Android Astronomer said...

I, too, remember English classes in which instructors admonished us to pick something creative, as "said" was to be avoided at all costs. Also, my favorite Tom Swiftie:

"I knew I should have used that blade guard on the circular saw," Tom said offhandedly.

Amy Johnson said...

Balance plays a role in this. For my current project, I've tried to do a lot of what Colin brought up with Brenda folding her arms before saying something, and the writer not needing a dialogue tag. While editing, I'm finding that I have too much of what I think is a good thing -- too much of somebody doing something then immediately saying something, and then another person doing something and then saying something, etc. Now I'm taking out some of the action and inserting "said."

I've also been working on something Steve mentioned: making our characters so identifiable that the reader will know who is saying something. I've come across instances while editing where I think, That character wouldn't have said that. Then I either change what got said or change which character said it.

Same here, Amy thought thoughtfully about what NLiu said about teachers encouraging "creative" dilague tags. And Mr. Furkles, your creative tags cracked me up! Miss you all!

Amy Johnson said...

Quickly, lest I be sent to Carkoon. Got to wondering about how such things aren't only about the styles of particular writers and publishers, but also about what's stylistically in vogue during a particular period of time. Thought some of you might be interested in what a quick look revealed regarding some creative tags used in addition to basic "said" by a few writers from the United States during the nineteenth century.

Nathaniel Hawthorne: asked, answered, remarked, exclaimed, cried, cried (again), and cried again. (For clarity, that last one was "cried again." Lots of crying there.)
Francis Bret Harte: cried, continued, returned
Edgar Allan Poe: exclaimed, ejaculated

PAH said...

This was funny timing. Just started reading ANXIOUS PEOPLE yesterday and it took several pages before we get our first "say" ... as opposed to something else. :D

Mister Furkles said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Katja said...

Mister Furkles,

Got it, thanks for explaining.

I will keep this in mind :), however I'm also keeping in mind what Amy said about too much and keeping things in the balance.
Plus, there are cases when show don't tell is taken too far... Sometimes you just HAVE to tell the reader, and I'd not mind if I was told a character insists on something if the story needs to move on faster.

Also, I've heard that writing a novel and writing a play is not quite the same, including when it comes to dialogue.
I insist, lol.

Mister Furkles said...


I suspect you misunderstood me. Do not tell the reader what to think but present the evidence and allow them to draw their own conclusions. It is very hard to do this. Some tags only describe the action such as "said" or "shouted". But other tell the reader what to think about the scene such as "argued" or "insisted" So with "argued" you tell the reader that the character is argumentative or arguing--don't do that. it's best illustrated by describing gestures, expressions, or actions.

Now, imagine you are producing a play to be performed in the reader's imagination. You are, of course, the playwright, but also the costume designer, the set designer, the sound technician, the lighting director, the director, and all of the actors.

Actors do not tell the audience what they are thinking. So if their character is arguing or insisting, they act that out. How do you, the everything play producer, provide that?

You want to draw the reader into every scene as a witness if not a participant. At the end of a story, it should not be something the reader read but an experience they lived.

Joseph S. said...

Good question.

Good answer.

I'm a said, asked, folded her arms writer.

Matt Adams said...

I wrote a blog post about this a couple of weeks ago. I think there should be new mark to solve the problem. My reporting teacher told us to just think of the sort as a long piece of punctuation, but I've also had fiction editors chastise me for my overuse.

Until we get it, I'm a said, asked, answered/replied guy. Anything else has connotations.