Who Said That?

You know what your character said—but do we know who said it? Crafting good dialogue is only part of the battle. The rest of the challenge involves knowing what dialogue tags to use and when. And since most work includes at least some conversation, it’s important for writers to familiarize themselves with some basic “tag rules” to make their prose cleaner and more readable.

SUBSTITUTES FOR “SAID”

There’s a four-letter word that always ignites debate in writing classes. (No, not that four-letter word.) The word in question is “said.” When do you use it? In what form? How often? Does it matter? Many novice writers try to avoid using “said” by substituting synonyms: “he uttered,” “she murmured,” “he questioned.” It’s true that any word repeated too often becomes monotonous, but substitutions for “said” can be worse than its repetition.

An entire page sprinkled with “said” synonyms is distracting to the reader. After she starts to notice the synonyms, she’ll lose focus on the story. (“What ‘said’ substitute will he come up with next?”) And avoid substitutes such as “scowled” or “smirked,” which don’t indicate an utterance at all—they’re facial expressions.

But when used reasonably, readers don’t actually notice dialogue tags; they should blend into the page. Some words that identify tone of voice can sharpen the reader’s mental image without calling undue attention to themselves. These include “shouted,” “whispered,” “gasped” and “murmured.” Such verbs can even enhance meaning. Consider this passage:

“I will never give in!” Harry said. “Once my word is given, it’s forever!”
“Except for being married five times,” Jane murmured.

“Murmured” adds a note of humor that would be missing if Jane had made her statement outright. By saying it under her breath, we’re not even sure that Harry heard it. This tells the reader that Jane has Harry’s number.

This is especially effective when dialogue and “said” synonyms carry opposite meanings. ” ‘I love you,’ he screamed” gets our attention much more than ” ‘I love you,’ he uttered” would.

THE GREAT ADVERB CONTROVERSY

For some reason, placing adverbs after the word “said” has both passionate advocates and detractors. Those opposed point to Tom Swift.

Swift was a boy adventurer featured in novels during the early 20th century. The prose was known for pairing most verbs with adverbs, so much so that it became a joke to invent pairings with double meanings, such as, ” ‘Let’s look in the cemetery,’ Tom said gravely.” Anti-adverb writers point out that many “said” adverbs duplicate meaning that the dialogue should be carrying. For instance: ” ‘Get out of here!’ Sue shouted angrily.” Sue’s words are angry, so the adverb is redundant (as is “shouted,” one might argue—the exclamation point suggests a raised voice).

Adverbs have value but only if they can add something not already implied:

“I did try to kill you, yes,” he said tenderly.

“The answer to question three is 167,” Sue said fervently.

“I wasn’t actually married five times,” Harry said judiciously. “Only four and a half.”

These adverbs are effective not only because they indicate an unexpected state of mind in the speaker, but also because they raise questions in readers’ minds: What can be tender about attempted murder? Why is Sue so fervent about a math problem? How can Harry, striving to be fair (“judiciously”), end up with only half a marriage?

If adverbs can deepen the meaning of your dialogue, go ahead and use them—just not constantly.

AVOIDING TAGS COMPLETELY

The cleanest, most economical way to handle dialogue tags is to eliminate them. If we can already tell who’s talking, you don’t need to use tags. This is true whenever you put a character’s dialogue and action in the same paragraph:

Mary lit a cigarette. “I don’t want to see you again.”

No tag is necessary because it’s perfectly clear who says the line.

Often you can write an entire scene between two people with no tags at all; however, if you have a rapid-fire exchange of short dialogue that goes on for more than five or six lines, you should insert a “said” just to keep the reader from having to pause and count off speakers to keep them straight. The following passage, for instance, needs a “said” or a small action inserted someplace:

“I wish you hadn’t said that.”
“I don’t regret it.”
“You never regret anything.”
“Not true.”
“Yes, it is.”
“Oh, and what about you?”
“I don’t—”
“Who had the affair, you or me?”

So who did have the affair? By now, it’s hard to tell. Add “said” to help your readers along.

You’ll also need help if a scene contains more than two people. Nothing bounces a reader out of a story faster than a key line of dialogue that might have been uttered by more than one person, with no way to tell which. In such scenes, use “said” liberally for clarity’s sake.

PACING

The most sophisticated use of “said” or another tag is to slow down important dialogue that you don’t want to whiz by the reader. In that case, “said” decreases the pace slightly. In Anita Shreve’s The Pilot’s Wife, Robert has just told Kathryn that her husband’s plane has crashed with no survivors:

Awkwardly, he placed his arms under hers. She let him help her up.
“I’m going to be—” she said.
Quickly, she pushed him away with the palms of her hands and leaned against the wall for support. She coughed and gagged, but there was nothing in her stomach.
“Sit here in this chair,” he said. “Where’s the light?”

The two “said” tags in these paragraphs probably aren’t necessary to tell us who’s speaking, but both lend a subtle pause to the action. In the first pause, we intuit Kathryn’s moment of rising nausea before she pushes away from the wall. In the second case, the “said” slows down Robert’s dialogue enough to underline his unfamiliarity with this house’s light switches. Both tags emphasize these small, mundane actions in this earth-shattering situation.

The 17th-century dramatist Ben Jonson put dialogue simply: “Give ’em words.” He might have also added, “and let those words be ‘tagged’ correctly.”

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