He Said, She Said: Stephen King’s Advice on Dialogue Tags

king-onwritingI think we all agree that dialogue tags are necessary for readers to know who’s talking. But writers are divided in how we use them:

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.

stephenkingcaricature

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?


Stephen King caricature credit: AZRainman. Some rights reserved.

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27 thoughts on “He Said, She Said: Stephen King’s Advice on Dialogue Tags

  1. Good observation, and King’s advice certainly seems sound. His examples of how adverbs can weaken a line are enlightening. And I agree that the story ought to inform the nature of the dialogue.
    One thing I hate though, in extended dialogue, is having to track back up the page to see which of the characters is speaking which lines – the writer ought to be making this quite obvious but it’s surprising how often he/she doesn’t.

    • Thank you for reading, Roy. Well, we don’t have to eliminate the tags completely, I think, even though I said I prefer no tags. Like it or not, only certain context and situation allow for zero tags. I know, it’s surprising that the writer sometimes does not realize his dialogue attribution (or lack thereof) can confuse readers. I guess that’s what editors are for? 😉

  2. Another writer who’s quite strict about ‘he said, she said’ is Elmore Leonard, and he’s considered a master of dialogue in the industry. I agree. You really need nothing more. If, for example, your characters are sneaking into a place they shouldn’t be in the middle of the night, it’s fairly safe to assume they’d be whispering – it’s not necessary to mention it in the attribution. And even a tag such as “he asked” is superfluous if there’s already a question mark.

    As for using no tags at all: I’d not try that with more than two characters at once and even then one should try to make each character’s voice very distinctive. But when done right it makes for wonderful reading.

    • I’ve read Leonard’s NY Times piece and I thought about including a quote of his in this post. I agree, I think “he asked” after a question mark should only be considered if it otherwise wouldn’t be clear to the reader who posed the question. Even then, I think, the writer should look more carefully into the context, to see why he failed to make it obvious.

      Thanks for reading and commenting!

  3. Hi, Daniel. Thanks for “liking” my “Plot and Story” post on Darkcargo.

    I enjoyed the discussion on attributions, and I also side with ‘said.’ It seems to dissolve in the mind, cluing in the reader subliminally to who is speaking when, then just getting on with the story. Only very rarely does an unusual condition of a character’s voice call for a more descriptive verb. But never an adverb.

    • You’re welcome, because I did like it, especially that bit about Han Solo and the interaction between characters and story. As for “said,” I like “dissolve in the mind”! Thanks for reading and commenting. 🙂

  4. My use of dialogue tags is entirely dependent on what’s going on in the story. Is a tag needed to determine who’s talking? Do I need to describe how the phrase was spoken because the character herself didn’t make it clear in what she said?

    That second question is the most important, because if it isn’t clear than I need to re-evaluate the dialogue itself. If I can, I try to change the dialogue to make it clear.

    To steal an example from “Novelist’s Boot Camp,” consider these two variations on the same line of dialogue:

    1) “Why are you late?” Nick demanded.
    2) “Stop right there and tell me just why in the hell you’re so late!”

    • Your example is “a shot in the rose,” as we say in Dutch. (Meaning “bullseye.”) Sure, it sometimes takes more words to show the character’s tone, but it also makes dialogues much more lively. Thanks for reading and sharing, Kira.

    • Love this example, Kira! I’m also a big fan of “showing” relevant mannerisms rather than just “telling” readers about tone. That might lead to an additional example of:

      Nick slammed his fist down on the table and pointed his beer bottle at Josie like a handheld cannon about to go off. “Did you think you could just sneak in here and I wouldn’t notice? You’d better tell me why in the hell you’re so late!”

  5. Stephen King’s book is a must read for any writer. I use “said” and only when necessary. Reading a book with variations of the word “said” or adverbs tagged on is distracting to me. In most cases it should be obvious from the dialogue who is speaking and how.

  6. This is a great round-up of very relevant advice! As someone who wrote poetry more often than fiction in my youth, paring down the extra descriptors was a really tough adjustment for me, but I definitely think it has made my writing stronger. I really avoid dialogue tags whenever possible, preferring to show the context and tone to ensure as little confusion as possible without throwing reads out of the story.

    • When it comes to tagging dialogues, less is indeed more. The ability to incorporate context and tone into the character’s dialogues while avoiding confusion is, I think, the mark of a good writer. Thanks for reading and your kind words.

  7. I’m on the Stephen King/Elmore Leonard side of the speaker tag issue. And heaven help me, I’ve tried to clean up my act on the use of adverbs. Adverbs can be eliminated if you include gestures with the dialogue that show what you mean.

    “I said, let it go!” Elayne said vehemently.

    versus

    “I said, let it go!” Elayne raised her clenched hands.

    • I agree. But we also have to be careful not to slip too much action in between dialogues because it can distract readers from the conversation flow. Jack Woe already showed an example of that in his post that I referred to above. A writer’s job is not easy! 🙂

      • True. That’s why I emphasized a physical gesture. sometimes we forget that dialogue can also include small movements.

  8. Pingback: Where James Joyce Fails, Neil Gaiman Prevails | sairyou.me

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