Dialogue Tags: Rethinking Rules

Now that I’ve apparently got that venting out of the way, let’s have a look at dialogue tags.

I’d like to start with the conventional wisdom, not from schools this time, but from writers.
Don’t use adverbs, ever.
Don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.
To steal a joke from Elmore Leonard, “they admonish gravely”.

Like all mediocre advice, there’s a lot of truth behind this, in specific areas. I’m still a little torn on whether it’s good “newbie” advice – after all, if we teach newbies that these are the rules, then expect them to know how and when to break them when they get more experienced, aren’t we doing exactly the thing I ranted about for so long last time?
Let’s back up and explore these a bit. I’m going to do them in reverse order, because I’m annoying like that. So – “don’t use any verb other than ‘said’.”

What’s good about this advice? Why would you tell this to a newbie? One very simple reason, really: Being able to put a fancy verb in a dialogue tag absolves the writer of having to work as hard in the dialogue to convey meaning.

“You won’t be able to do it,” she asserted.

Asserted conveys a lot there, in terms of tone. In many situations, that’s a perfectly acceptable sentence – in many contexts, it’s the best, most concise way of conveying the information.
But what about:

“It’s true!” she asserted.

How much do you really need ‘asserted’ there? The exclamation mark conveys much of the emphasis, and the simple declaration is short and forceful in and of itself. You could definitely read tone from the context (if you can’t read tone into “It’s true!” from context, the writer probably has more issues than just dialogue tags). “She asserted” just isn’t necessary.
Here’s the other issue:

“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To the shops, with friends,” his friend replied.

What extra information does “replied” carry here? Absolutely nothing. If it had been ‘retorted’, then the extra venom might have justified the fancy verb, but here you’re just distracting the reader for no purpose.
This is the argument for “no verbs other than ‘said’”: A new writer is better off avoiding these mistakes to encourage them to develop better dialogue writing skills than relying on the crutch of fancy verbs.

Here’s the bad: Some verbs are just better than said in their appropriate context. These are the verbs describing voice and nothing else.
If you need to convey that a character is modifying their volume or pitch, there is no better way than to use a verb meaning exactly that volume or pitch of voice, and leave it at that. Forcing a writer, especially a new writer, to convey those things through dialogue alone is likely to just end up with clumsy workarounds – extra exclamation marks, overuse of italics, ellipses all over the place, too much description of character action to provide context for the speech to convey tone.

The rule about adverbs comes from much the same place, though it’s a little more clear-cut. Reducing the new writer’s reliance on things outside dialogue forces development of dialogue writing. However, it’s much harder to talk about where the exceptions are, because adverbs are much more nebulous. If you’ve got an ear for writing, you’ll hear where they’re necessary, and where they add to the writing rather than taking away from it.
If you don’t, well … it’s not the sort of thing you can be taught. It’s a combination of sentence flow plus overall meaning divided by conciseness of sentence viewed through the lens of personal voice and writing style. Unfortunately, this is really useless to try and tell someone who’s new, so it just gets boiled down to “don’t” and we kind of hope that the new people learn how to use them right on their own eventually.

So, to talk about proper use of dialogue tags, I’m going to try taking an opposite approach: Define good dialogue tag use in terms of what it is, rather than what it isn’t.

Let’s stop and break down what the dialogue tag actually does. I would posit that a good dialogue tag has three purposes, in this order of importance:
– To identify to the reader who is speaking so that dialogue does not become confusing;
– To provide extra information on how to read the dialogue when context is insufficient; and
– To inform the flow of the sentence.

The first is fairly self-explanatory. The reader needs to know who is speaking. Adding “name/pronoun said” occasionally into the text keeps the speakers clear and makes reading easier. For this purpose, just ‘said’ is fine; no need for frills.

But, if you’re like me, you don’t like things that have only one purpose in the writing, and your dialogue does need some tone context to help it along, even if you’re amazing at character writing.
Still, fancy verbs all the time has a main problem: no matter how excellent your vocabulary is, you’re going to run out of verbs referring to speech that don’t sound just plain clunky (when you’re resorting to ‘pontificated’, you’ve officially run out of words), or you’re going to have some issues with repetition. Suddenly, nobody says things, everybody “hisses” – or more realistically, everyone who is angry “hisses” and everybody who is shocked “gasps”, and your individual characterisation kind of goes down the toilet.
Instead, action is your friend.

He rolled his eyes. “Are you quite done?”

“I didn’t mean it.” She scratched the back of her head.

Double-whammy! Characterisation and a shorthand for who’s speaking at any given time! It’s not lazy, it’s just efficient.

The third one, and the one you’re going to want to use really carefully, is dialogue tag to indicate flow.
Here’s a sentence with a fancy verb.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he ventured.

Here’s a sentence with a judiciously-placed dialogue tag.

“I think,” he said, “we need to go to the house again.”

Here’s another.

“I think we need to go to the house again,” he said. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

Even better:

“I think we need to go to the house again.” He glanced around the room. “But it’s just my opinion, I guess.”

The dialogue tag splits the sentence up and indicates hesitation or a significant pause without needing to use ellipses or saying “he hesitated” or any of those things. Flow is pretty much the most powerful tool in a writer’s toolbox – the first sentence with the fancy verb isn’t bad, exactly, but the ones after it just sound right as you read them. Combining appropriate use of flow with a well-placed action gives the best picture of what’s going on, and the most subtle.

Instead of talking about “said is dead” or not to use verbs or adverbs, I’d rather be pointing new writers to a checklist.
Does it need to be there to indicate who’s speaking?
Does it provide information that ‘said’ or the dialogue alone does not?
Is it used to indicate sentence flow?

After you’ve satisfied those criteria, you can start adding adverbs. I promise, they’re not going to bite you.

Dialogue Tags and Education

Well, we’ve had a few ranty blog posts recently, and I’m a little over them, so let’s get down to business with something a little more on the ‘craft’ side of things.

Let’s talk about dialogue tags.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from tutoring, it’s that primary and high school teachers don’t always see eye to eye with writers on the Internet about dialogue tags. For a while, I was on Pinterest being subtly horrified at it every time it told me that it had picked a “Said is Dead” chart for my viewing pleasure because WHO USES THOSE ANYMORE? I had one in my Year 1 classroom; surely things have changed since then!
Of course, two of my tutoring students promptly brought those charts to their next lessons with me, and that’s when I realised how big a foot I was potentially shoving into my mouth with all my rambling about ‘efficient language’ and ‘don’t use a long word, use the right word”.

To be fair, at a primary school level, and to some level at a high school level, there is an excellent reason to enforce rules like this: Vocabulary. Primary school is a place where it’s important to learn as much vocabulary as humanly possible, because the more time you have to get acclimated to words, the more you’ll be able to use them effectively later. It takes a while of usage and misusage to really understand connotation, after all.

That being said, there is a huge problem with this, and that is the necessity of un-teaching it later, which just seems a really unintuitive way to go about things. It’s one thing to present a simplified version of the truth to get students to come to grips with a concept before you start bombarding them with caveats and exceptions, but it’s entirely another to have to do a complete one-eighty halfway through their schooling life. They do this with essays as well (or, at least, they did at my school) – they give you a very strict structure for how you write an essay or text response (introduction, three body paragraphs, conclusion, TEEL paragraph structure etc.), and then suddenly in Year 10, they tell you to write an essay without that structure because that structure is so last year.
As a result, a significant number of people in year 10 suddenly have their essay grades plummet, because there’s been no lead-up to this change, no indication that their paragraph structure will ever fail them, and thus no reason to look at important things like the reason behind that structure, or the ways in which it works and doesn’t work. Unless you’re an English nerd – in fact, the only people who survived that transition unscathed were the ones who were experimenting with the structure before this change was announced.

Vocabulary is much the same – somewhere between high school and university, the metric changes on you, but nobody will ever tell you why. It’s actually really simple: the world goes from measuring how many words you know to measuring how efficiently and precisely you can use those words. That’s all it is. But because it’s such a change from how schools teach language use, people are blindsided by it. Some never even realise the change has taken place, because it’s so easy to conflate large vocabulary with intelligence (if someone uses an uncommon word because it’s the precise one that’s needed, it’s simple to just take away that they sounded intelligent because they used an uncommon word, especially if you’ve had it pounded into your head for upwards of ten years that good English students use uncommon words).

The other problem with the approach is that teaching and then de-teaching something is unnecessarily complicated. If you teach someone something, going back and then saying “that’s untrue” results only in confusion. You’ve taught a frame of reference and then you have to remove it and replace it with an unfamiliar one years down the track.
This is the intellectual equivalent of building a house on a concrete foundation, then getting partway through the building process, realising you’d like a reinforced concrete foundation instead, then having to somehow tear up the concrete, either reinforce the concrete you have or replace the concrete with reinforced concrete without actually damaging the house. It’s ludicrous.

Dialogue tags suffer most from this in fiction writing, I think, because they’re such tricksy goblins to begin with. They’re delicate things that perform a few very specific functions, but they do happen to be able to be loaded down with a plethora of self-important verbs, delicious adverbs and oooo, a nice selection of subclauses for after! And it’s very difficult to tell someone how and where they’ve used a dialogue tag badly because chances are you can use that exact construction well.

But … well, I said I wouldn’t rant, but here we are, a good thousand words or so into the piece and I’ve not said a thing about writing craft.
I’ll split this into two, then – first, the rant on the state of schooling (can’t promise that topic won’t come up again, by the way), and then the explanation of how dialogue tags ought to work.
Hopefully I can make the dry grammar stuff as interesting as working myself into a frothing rage over the education system.