Writing fiction is my first writing love, and I try to spend at least a few hours every week honing my craft and working on my manuscripts in process. While I’ve not had a fiction manuscript published (yet), I think I’ve learned a few things worth passing on. One that took me by surprise was the misuse and abuse of dialogue tags.
(As an aside, I’m not good with rules–so this is my happy pantser dance all over Marcy’s blog schedule 🙂 Love ya, Marcy!)
I learned to love writing in a high school English class called Writers Craft. One of the ‘rules’ forever imprinted on my memory by Mr. Borek is ‘Show Don’t Tell’. The ladies in my writer’s group will tell you I’m all about show don’t tell.
Attributing dialogue to a speaker is called a dialogue tag. He said, she asked, etc. Using verbs in dialogue tags to ‘tell’ the reader more about what’s being said is considered weak writing, and after a while gets extremely irritating.
“Please,” she whined.
The word ‘whined’ is being used to ‘tell’ more than the dialogue gives us itself. Instead, rewrite the sentence to ‘show’ the speaker is whining.
“Please. Why can’t I have a cookie?” She tugged on her mother’s skirt. “Mom. Why can’t I have a cookie? Jake got one, why can’t I have one too?”
Said and asked are the best ways to tell readers who is speaking. It’s simple, and I find I just skip over it when I’m reading. It doesn’t slow me down or pull me out of the story the way other words can. Said can appear several times on a page and I won’t notice. On rare occasions, adding verbs or adverbs to a dialogue tag is considered acceptable.
I used to think that it would be annoying to read said over and over, so I replaced said with a variety of other verbs and adverbs to add variety. I exhausted the thesaurus, and the patience of everyone who read my early work.
Words like bellowed, hollered, whispered, whined, begged, demanded, shouted, muttered, shrieked, growled, etc. are considered amateurish. When you require strong verbs to prop up your dialogue, rewrite.
Some of those tags are just impossible. He growled, “Get out.” Can you really growl the words get out? Try it. Try hissing something? Instead, just write it as an action. If you put the action next to the dialogue the reader will figure out who’s speaking. He growled. “Get out.”
But I want the reader to know the character is mad or angry or…
You need to give your reader a little credit and assume this isn’t their first foray into fiction. If the dialogue is written well, the reader should pick up on the character’s feelings or emotions without you having to hit them over the head with it. Use action following the dialogue to add meaning instead.
My personal preference is to rewrite the dialogue if said or asked won’t suffice. I use action to attribute dialogue often as well. Keep it simple. Keep the focus on the story and avoid jerking the reader from the scene they’re reading.