On Dialogue Mechanics and the "Said" Debate

Jean gripped the end of his shirt and cried, “Don’t leave me! I beg you. Have pity on me.”
“Let go, Jean,” he ordered. “You’re acting like a child.”
She pleaded, “If you go, you’ll never come back. Stay. Stay with me.”
He replied, “You know I have to go home. I’ve got family waiting for me.”
“You can’t be serious,” Jean blurted in astonishment.
“I repeat, I have to go home,” he repeated.
Jean wailed in despair, “But…but I can’t go through these queries by myself. There’s 300 still waiting in my inbox!”


Alright, joking aside, what do we see here? Cried, ordered, pleaded, replied, blurted, repeated, wailed. Did these dialogue tags jump out at you? Made you stumble, made you pause?
In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Rennie Browne and Dave King, chapter 5 addresses the pitfalls of dialogue tags. I like how they give us this metaphor to explain why dialogue tags are considered lazy writing:
Imagine you’re at a play. It’s the middle of the first act; you’re getting really involved in the drama they’re acting out. Suddenly the playwright runs out on the stage and yells, “Do you see what’s happening here? Do you see how her coldness is behind his infidelity? Have you noticed the way his womanizing has undermined her confidence? Do you get it?” (pp.83-84)
When we tell our readers our characters are pleading, wondering, repeating, we’re basically saying, “Hey, my dialogue doesn’t show how my character is feeling so I need to tell you dear reader that you may know.” In other words, we have weak dialogues or we’re not confident our dialogue portrays the feeling we wish to convey to our audience.
Said, on the other hand, may look boring and so not fancy. You’re thinking, We’re writers! We revel in words! We must use beautiful, interesting words; otherwise, what good are they if we have to replace them with plain old boring said?
Said works because when we’re reading, our eyes gloss over it. It’s invisible. It’s transparent. We see the dialogue, and not the tag. Consider this:
“You get your butt over here, Johnny, or I swear to God I’ll whip it for breaking my favorite vase,” said Mrs. Babblemouth.

And then, this:
“You are in trouble, Johnny, for breaking my vase,” ranted Mrs. Babblemouth in anger.

Hm. Let’s nitpick, shall we? In the first example, the dialogue itself is already showing us how Mrs. Babblemouth is feeling: she’s upset, and we can probably picture her yelling at Johnny even though it doesn’t say so in the sentence. But the image is there, right? You see it.
Let’s take a look at the second example. We know Johnny is in trouble for breaking the vase, but here we’re also being told that Mrs. Babblemouth ranted in anger. Why is the writer telling us? Because the dialogue is not strong enough to convey Mrs. Babblemouth’s anger. We still see it since we’re told that’s what happened, but as a reader we feel patronized. It’s classic Show vs. Tell, and I’ll have a post about this sometime in the future.
You’ve probably come across this term in editing books: R.U.E. Resist the Urge to Explain. Example 2 above doesn’t RUE. It tells us Mrs. Babblemouth is angry. This is unnecessary and therefore, lazy writing. If the dialogue is already clear, there is no need for an explanation. Ever.

I’ll have more coming up on Dialogue and Adverbs, Dialogue and Characterization, and Dialogue and Speaker Attribution. So stay tuned.


Lori M. Lee said...

Love this post! So, so true. I once came across an aspiring writer's blog in which she had a 'dialogue tag table' listing TONS of creative dialogue tags, as a WRITING RESOURCE. AAAGH I wanted to grip the monitor and yell NOOOOOOOO all Darth Vader-like. I resisted though.

Thanks for this awesome post!

Kalen O'Donnell said...

As Lori can tell you, I am VERY guilty of the overuse of dialogue tags. However, I have never heard it explained before as 'said' being transparent enough that people just gloss over it, but its so true. And gives a very different perspective. Very useful way to explain it.

Marewolf said...

Great post! When I first started writing, I totally did this wrong. Everything was a "gasp" or "chortle". Plus I really loved adverbs.

I still love adverbs, but I keep most of them out of my work :-)

cherie said...

@Lori: Gasp on dialogue tags as a writing resource. That was probably a headache to read all the moans, prods, repeats, chuckles, groans, wonders, reprimands, admonishes, etc.

It is okay to say tell/told and ask/asked. Even an occasional answer/answered, or reply/replied is fine. As I'm known for saying, balance is key. Thanks for stopping by!

@Kalen: Hi! Nice to see you here. I'm glad I can offer you a different perspective. ;)

@Marewolf: Hi there, purple sistah! Thanks for the follow, btw. Your characters are allowed to gasp or chortle, as long as you don't turn these verbs into dialogue tags.

For example:

She gasped, clutching her purse tightly. "I know you! You're the guy who stole my phone."

This is when we use speaker attribution without using a tag to indicate who's saying the line. I'll post about this too. Maybe next week.

Oh, and adverbs...yeah, I have a post for this too. Definitely something to be avoided, but also something that can be effective if used right.

Thanks for the comments, guys! Wonderful feedback.

Bluestocking Mum said...

Dialogue is my absolute favourite part of writing, so much so, I wonder whether I should be script writing.

You're right about the adverbs too.

Super post

Joyce Alton said...

Well done, cherie. Keep it up and you'll be getting your own blog spotlight. =)Of coure, since I know you, I'll have to get an interview too.

Oh, and thanks for the new blogging award. I did catch that the other day in my inbox. You're awesome.

Jenny Phresh said...

"Hurrah!" I exclaimed, with much enthusiasm.

Lynn Colt said...

This post made me laugh :) I almost never use any tags besides 'said' unless it's 'whispered' or something to indicate that they're talking a different volume than normal. My first, will-never-see-the-light-of-day novel had way too many distracting tags!

D. U. Okonkwo said...

LOL. Great post, and I think we can all see what you're trying to say, here. Dialogue first and foremost needs to sound realistic. No contrived 'replied, pleaded, begged,' etc - or only sparingly in we must.
It's important to remember too that we often don't speak in complete sentence. 'Can you pass me the salt, is more often said 'pass the salt.'

Heather said...

I took a creative writing class and the instructor said to never use said tags. My fist novel was full of character actions. Talk about bogging down your writing!! I'd like to think I have a healthy balance now. ;)

cherie said...

@Bluestocking Mum: Hi Debbie! Thanks for swinging by. How are you doing?

I bet you'll make a wonderful script writer. I love dialogues too. There's so much that we can glean from a character simply by reading what they have to say.

@Joyce: You are too kind. I don't think I'm interview-worthy. I'll probably stutter and stub my toes just writing my responses. XD

@Jenny: "Woot! Woot!" I screamed in happiness.

@Lynn: Hi! Thanks for stopping by. You're not alone in having an ms chock full of writerly no-nos. I've been there.

It's why I post about these things in my blog. I figured, why not pass along the insights I've learned since trashing that first 400-paged novel of mine? So others will be spared the heartache of making the same mistakes I made as a newbie novelist, and can get off to a good start. =)

@D.U.: Excellent comment! Yes, realistic dialogue is not formal. Or stilted. We also have to remember that while we need to make our dialogues realistic, we should not go overboard and write it as we hear it in real life. Because in real life, people talk to each other this way:

"How's your day going?"
"Fine. How's yours?"
"Erm, okay I guess."

Then our stories will never get told.

@Heather: Imagine that! =D Yes, healthy balance is best. Thanks for stopping by!

Anita said...

Another excellent post on the rules of writing. I love physical tags as dialogue flags, but those can get obnoxious too, if there are too many. Like you said, healthy balance. When in doubt, leave it out. LOL

cherie said...

Hear, hear, Anita! You are just super awesome, you know that? I <3 u!!

Maria Papadopoulou said...

Good job. I am also bothered by the constant he said-she said. As long as it is clear who is talking, there is no need to state the obvious.

Maria Papadopoulou said...

Of course, there is the other extreme...where it is not clear who is talking and the author lets you guess. I remember getting a headache over that once!LOL

cherie said...

Maria, so true. My next installment (coming up this Tuesday actually) is on Dialogue and Speaker Attributions. ;) It'll address the issue of too much he said/she said.

Anonymous said...

Hello! Yes, this is true. I often skip the dialogue tags, but everyonce in a while it just works a little better. : )

Cedric J. Sims said...

I never really had a problem with dialogue tags rather than dialogue itself. Ever since I was around 9 or so I've mainly only used 'said'. I like to use the occasional 'replied', 'yelled',or anything else I can think of. One tag that should never appear in a book (and I'm glad I've only seen it in one series), is the word 'exclaimed'. It's such an ugly word.

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