When my children were small, I worked for a while at their school. One of my roles was to take the ‘able and gifted’ children for creative writing lessons. Part of this was to increase their vocabulary and we duly spent a great deal of time thinking about different words, more interesting words, particularly more interesting words than ‘said’ and ‘asked’. Honestly, I’ve spent hours writing down word after word after word that could, technically anyway, be used instead of ‘said’!
Now I spend a great deal of time highlighting more unusual and interesting dialogue tags and begging my clients to please, please, please delete them and, if they must use a dialogue tag at all, then stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’.
I can hear the intake of breath from here – particularly from those of you who are newer writers (and possibly from some of those who aren’t and who should know better!). Surely it’s a mark of a good writer to have an extended vocabulary? Surely you’re showing your writing prowess by having the thesaurus open and using ‘snickered’, ‘interjected’, ‘commented’ and ‘sighed’?
No, you aren’t.
What you’re actually doing is taking that carefully crafted fictitious world you’ve spent months, even years in some cases, crafting, and smashing it down.
Because the point of a dialogue tag is to signify who has spoken. That’s it. Nothing else. It shouldn’t indicate how something is said. It shouldn’t indicate the tone or the volume of the words. It should simply show only who is speaking.
Why? Well, lots of reasons. (If you are a client and you have read all this before then I do apologise.) Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over them, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. The reader is also suddenly reminded that they’re reading a book. They’re not actually in an eighteenth century English prison, or on a spaceship circling Mars, or on a beach in Sydney. They’re suddenly pulled out of that world and back into reality. ‘Look at me,’ the dialogue tag says, ‘the author looked me up in a thesaurus because they wanted to sound interesting. Also, they didn’t have enough confidence in their own writing to know that the character’s words, actions, situation and emotions would be sufficient to let you know that the character was shouting, or that you, the reader, were clever enough to work that out yourself. The author thinks you’re stupid.’
And that cleverly crafted world is destroyed.
If you don’t believe me, then look at this dialogue from the wonderful Douglas Adams:
‘Drink up,’ said Ford, ‘you’ve got three pints to get through.’
‘Three pints?” said Arthur. ‘At lunchtime?’
The man next to Ford grinned and nodded happily. Ford ignored him. He said, ‘Time is an illusion. Lunchtime doubly so.’
‘Very deep,’ said Arthur, ‘you should send that in to the Reader’s Digest. They’ve got a page for people like you.’
(The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy)
It’s also worth bearing in mind that most dialogue tags don’t really make sense. Take ‘chuckled’ for example. No one really chuckles a word. They might say a word and then chuckle, but you can’t do the two things at once. Dialogue cannot be laughed, smiled, giggled, nodded or screamed.
Remember, writing should appear effortless (although it is far from it) and a dialogue tag that stands out reveals the author, reveals that the world has been crafted. To paraphrase Stephen King – you have told your story well enough to believe that when you use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ your reader will know how it was said or asked.
So please, avoid that thesaurus, and avoid using distracting, horrible dialogue tags. Even better, try not to use tags at all. You can use actions to signify who is speaking. For example:
‘Where have you been?’ Adam folded his arms, his mouth a thin line.
Jennifer rolled her eyes.
‘It’s none of your business.’
‘It is when you’re late for dinner.’
She looked at the table, set for two, and then glanced at her husband.
‘I’ve told you before not to bother cooking for me.’
In this (admittedly not very good) example, it’s completely clear who is saying what, and we also can tell how it’s being said – the physical actions and reactions give us all the clues we need.
So trust yourself, and trust your reader. You don’t need that thesaurus. At least not for dialogue tags.