Some, including Raymond Carver, simply use “he said, she said”; others apparently invent a million different synonyms for “said”; still others try to find balance between the two extremes, sometimes even fifty-fifty.
Yesterday, yet another writer, Jack Woe, jumped into the fray:
I’ve read quite a few blogs about the evilness of dialogue tags. For example, Joe Moore wrote in The Kill Zone how new authors are overusing the alternatives of said.They go to: exclaimed, murmured, screamed, whispered, pleaded, shrieked, demanded, ordered, cried, shouted, and my all-time favorite, muttered.
Thing is, I as a reader, don’t care. I just don’t read dialogue tags — at all.
He’s not alone. To me, modifying such a perfectly fine tag as “said” is like Pimp My Ride gone bad. (Tip: Read that sentence again in Samuel L. Jackson’s voice.) I suggest you head over to Jack’s blog to read his brief, yet succinct musing over dialogue tags—or as Stephen King puts it in “On Writing”, “dialogue attribution.”
A passionate adversary to adverbs, King warns against using adverbs in dialogue attribution, which reduce the effectiveness of the attribution verb:
I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it. Just to make sure we all know what we’re talking about, examine these three sentences:“Put it down!” she shouted.
“Give it back,” he pleaded, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said.
In these sentences, shouted, pleaded, and said are verbs of dialogue attribution. Now look at these dubious revisions:“Put it down!” she shouted menacingly.
“Give it back,” he pleaded abjectly, “it’s mine.”
“Don’t be such a fool, Jekyll,” Utterson said contemptuously.
The three latter sentences are all weaker than the three former ones, and most readers will see why immediately.
Some writers try to evade the no-adverb rule by shooting the attribution verb full of steroids. The result is familiar to any reader of pulp fiction or paperback originals:”“Put the gun down, Utterson!” Jekyll grated.
“Never stop kissing me!” Shayna gasped.
“You damned tease!” Bill jerked out.
The best form of dialogue attribution is said, as in he said, she said, Bill said, Monica said.
King admits that, despite the advice he’s given us, he is “an ordinary sinner”:
I’ve spilled out my share of adverbs in my time, including some (it shames me to say it) in dialogue attribution. (I have never fallen so low as “he grated” or “Bill jerked out,” though.) When I do it, it’s usually for the same reason any writer does it: because I am afraid the reader won’t understand me if I don’t.
[Y]ou probably have told your story well enough to believe that when you use he said, the reader will know how he said it—fast or slowly, happily or sadly.
All I ask is that you do as well as you can, and remember that, while to write adverbs is human, to write he said or she said is divine.”
“Said” may indeed be divine; still, my favorite variant of dialogue tags is none at all. “John Howard”, a short story made up entirely of dialogue, written by John W. Howell, is an excellent example. (A hilarious one, at that.)
Your turn: How do you tag your dialogues?