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Writer’s Craft # 11 – Dialogue Tags

March 14, 2011

Is it best to keep it simple or to get creative when using attribution tags for dialogue? Here’s what some of the members of the SF Canada discussion list had to say about the topic when it came up in discussion.

If in doubt, stick to the simplest choices like ‘said’ or ‘asked’.

Some authors approved of the judicious use of alternatives such as ‘sighed’, ‘groaned’, ‘moaned’ and ‘wondered’. Even ‘lied’, and ‘shrieked’ were recommended — in moderation! And here’s one to avoid: ejaculated. As in: “‘I’m not coming!’ he ejaculated. Exotic examples like ‘vamped’ or ‘opined’ were also frowned upon.

Editor Dawné Dominique described a particular problem caused by using tags that can’t be performed while speaking. “The simple rule I used to tell my authors is this: If you can’t talk and do the dialogue tag (verb) at the same time, it’s not a proper dialogue tag. I don’t know how many times I’ve received. ‘Just watch me,’ he laughed. Can he laugh and talk at the same time. Well, he probably could, but would the words be understandable? No.”

Usually, examples of this kind are a punctuation problem. The right approach is:

“Just watch me.” He laughed.

Don’t be shy about using enough examples of ‘said’ to remove any ambiguity about which character is talking. Author Kristin Janz said, “I can’t stand it when I have to back-track up seven or eight lines of dialogue and use my fingernail to poke alternate lines so I can keep track of who is speaking.”

Share your own opinions, pet peeves, examples and thoughts about dialogue tags.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. Kari T permalink
    March 14, 2011 1:03 pm

    I always notice this too, and my preference is the simple ‘said’.
    However, what is annoying is to see ‘said’ after every single spoken phrase.

    Good points!

    • March 14, 2011 2:24 pm

      Raising the question of how one balances conflicting advice. Stick to ‘said’. Make sure the reader is never in doubt about who is speaking. But don’t get monotonous.

  2. March 14, 2011 7:14 pm

    Personally, I also just stick to the simple “said.” I’ve often found that when reading, I usually don’t even notice the dialogue tags unless they’re something unusual like:

    “I’m not going to the party!” he flabbergasted to the crowd.

    Which makes absolutely no sense, hehe. But aye, I stick to “said” in most cases, except for the occasional few where some other word is called for. It’s a bit like bread I guess. For just about anything, you can use normal sliced bread just fine. There are occasions though where you’ll need to use something else like a baguette, but it’s important to know just where to use what.

    • March 14, 2011 9:29 pm

      Indeed. I confess to mixing up my plain bread with a bit of rye or sourdough, but try to avoid the exotic. There was a time when I felt I was being vapid if I didn’t mix up the cuisine a bit but on the whole I think you’re right. One doesn’t “notice” the repetitions of ‘said’.

      Nothing wrong with a character being flabbergasted, though. To rework the example:

      “I’m not going to the party!” he cried, looking flabbergasted.

      or

      “I’m not going to the party!” he exclaimed, round-eyed and flabbergasted.

      or

      He stared at me, flabbergasted. “I’m not going to the party!” he said.

      Which makes me wonder: is it right to use ‘said’ for an exclamation?

      • March 16, 2011 4:08 am

        Indeed, saying that he was flabbergasted works well and adds to the tone of the dialogue. I don’t think using it as a verb like how I used it really works though, hehe.

        I think using “said” for an exclamation would really depend on the exclamation. In some cases, it would work I suppose, like during an intense and fast-paced scene where the reader would probably skip right over it and go right to what was being said. If it were a sudden exclamation though, it might not work, but I’m not sure. What do you think?

      • March 17, 2011 9:15 pm

        For me, the exclamation point itself says exclaimed/cried/ejaculated, so those words would be redundant.

        “I’m not going to the party!” he said, flabbergasted.

        And to veer off-topic, for flabbergasted I’d almost want to punctuate it with ?! since the surprise element implies it’s half a question.

        But then again, how often does ?! really occur? Now I just want to rewrite the whole silly thing!

  3. Lynda Williams permalink
    March 16, 2011 8:47 am

    “No way!” he said. Mmm, sound right to me. Maybe because it’s short and “exclaimed” would make it ‘heavy’.

    “Can’t be happening!” he exclaimed. Sounds like overkill.

    “Only on Wednesdays!” he cried. ‘Cried’ or ‘exclaimed’ would work because the exclamation isn’t an obvious one so can stand the emphasis.

    My thoughts on the issue, at least.

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