Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Dialogue Tags and give away

by Alice Valdal

       I thought a simple discussion of dialogue tags, that little phrase that identifies the speaker in a passage of dialogue,  would be a useful way to fill this space today.  So, I started with a Google search.  There were hundreds of thousands of hits.  It seems many people have a lot to say about he said/she said, not to mention screamed, shrieked, whispered, croaked, stammered, etc.  So much for a simple discussion. 
     While most authorities these days suggest a writer avoid alternatives to "said", I found one blog site that listed thirty synonyms.  Interestingly, another blog listed most of the same words in a "do not use" column.  
        Clearly, I cannot trust the blogosphere to guide me in the use of dialogue tags.  So, I turned to the classics.  D.H. Lawrence writes:  "Why mother!" he exclaimed (one of the one-line experts said never to use an exclamation mark and the word exclaimed)  "His picture's got first prize, Fred," she cried.
        Charles Dickens wrote:  "Nobody said they warn't, in my hearing," returned Coavinses.  "No," observed Mr. Skimpole.  "But what did you think upon the road?"  "Wot do you mean?" growled Coavinses... "    I guess Mr. Dickens didn't get the memo on he said/she said either.
         Conventional wisdom today is that writers should avoid dialogue tags altogether, if possible, and to shun adverbs at all costs.  Again I looked to the classics and found Jane Austen writing "Do not you want to know who has taken it?" cried his wife impatiently.  "Oh," said Lydia stoutly.  "I am not afraid..."  On the other side of the Atlantic, Herman Melville wrote: "'Damn your eyes! what's that pump stopping for?' roared Radney, pretending not to have heard the sailors' talk.  'Thunder away at it!' 'aye, aye sir,' said Steelkilt, merry as a cricket. ..."
           The only author I found who never used an attirbute or an adverb unnecessarily was Ernest Hemingway.  Hardly a surprise, since Hemingway has long been lauded for his spare style.  But all writers are not Hemingway and what a dull tale our bookshelves would tell if every author emulated him.  Just think, if Poe had written like Hemingway we'd not have "quoth the raven" in our collective conscience, or those lovely Tom Swifties, that bring a smile to a wordsmith's face.  What a shame it would be if we could never chuckle over "'I have a split personality,'" said Tom, being frank;" or "'I wish I had written down the things I need at the store,' said Tom, listlessly."
        After all my searching on line, I found my pearl of wisdom in an old copy of Elements of Style by Strunk and White.  These eminent authorities devoted only twelve lines to the topic of dialogue. They advise the writer to use attributives to identify the speaker and to break the sentence in a natural place.  Discussing the use of simple or complex words Strunk and White urge the writer to rely on his ear.  If a sentence sounds good when read aloud, it is a good sentence.  I would say the same premise applies to dialogue.   If your heroine needs to "cry out," let her.  If your villain speaks harshly, let the reader know.  If your hero stammers in the presence of women, don't edit the life out of him by using "said."
          Now, there I go, adding my own "rules."   To atone, I invite you to have a little fun with words. Leave a Tom Swiftie in the comment box, along with your e-addy, and I'll enter you in a draw for a calendar from Beautiful B.C.  Winner to be announced on Feb. 27. Void where prohibited by law.

To observe Alice Valdal's use of dialogue, and dialogue tags, check out the short story page on her website


  1. Oh Alice, you're so right. Them rules they are a-changin' all the time! Ultimately, we need to go with what sounds good, and what our readers will understand. Go Strunk and White, Go!

  2. An educated ear is a priceless asset. One acquires it by reading - and by reading aloud. You can't beat the classics - like Dickens, Poe, Austen, and Strunk & White.

    I think the caution about dialogue tags started because many writers do not have the sensibilities of some of the classic authors.

  3. The problem, as I understand it, is authors who overdo and draw attention to the fact that we are reading (rather than experiencing) the story by their attempts to cleverly avoid using "said". As a rule, I use he said/she said, but I'm not afraid to introduce an alternative for variety. I like actions tags best, but sometimes they don't read well without a 'said' in there too. Thanks for the discussion, Alice.

  4. I think the more invisible the speaker tag, the better. However, in some cases you just need it. Otherwise the writing can get bogged down. Some writing experts like Sol Stein even say that we shouldn't be afraid of the word 'said' because to most readers it's almost invisible. So like all things, moderation is the key word. Great posting. Thanks Val.

  5. Ooops. Sorry, it was Alice who posted this. I really ought to wear my glasses when I post comments. :o)