Tag Archives: dialogue tags

Says the Editor: Tom Swiftly

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I love that you guys are reading my posts and interacting with me and with them. This one, about dialogue tags, in particular has raised a number of questions and responses.

We’ve already talked about asks versus said.

But, another author asked, what about the Tom Swiftlies? Or maybe she spelled it Tom Swiftlys, which I suppose is actually more accurate, if we pretend that SWIFTLY is Tom’s last name.

At any rate, she’s got a point. When we’re talking dialogue tags and the power of the verb we use — ask, said, demanded, emoted, swore — we should also talk about those pesky little adverbs. You know: He said softly. He yelled loudly. He swore aggressively. He stated belligerently.

Notice how these are all TELLING words. They tell us how the speaker did his verb (said, yelled, swore, stated). But do they show?

Go back to the time-worn canon: show, don’t tell. Now, we all know that by and large, this is a truth of fiction. Show, don’t tell.

But we also know there are times when it’s okay, or even better, to tell, don’t show.

How do you know which is the right thing to do when writing dialogue?

For me, this one’s fairly easy, but it involves a lot of trust in your reader (which is where I think a lot of this breakdown occurs. That, or bad sixth grade teachers who thought adverbs with dialogue were all that and more). Can the reader figure out how something is conveyed if you remove the adverb? Yelling is a loud thing. You can’t yell quietly. (Admit it: you tried.) You can be forceful and strong but quiet, but you can’t yell. Even Webster’s agrees:

Definition of yell
intransitive verb
1 : to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout
2 : to give a cheer usually in unison
transitive verb
: to utter or declare with or as if with a yell : shout

Look at that top definition: to utter a loud cry, scream, or shout — see it? By definition, a yell is loud. There’s no need to tell us!

Sometimes, it’s not that cut and dry. You can state things calmly, quietly, belligerently, aggressively… the list goes on. So how do you still convey your meaning yet remove the adverb?

Two ways, and they don’t have to be exclusive of each other. The first is via word choice. Someone being aggressive is going to use a different set of words than someone who is being calm, or even someone being diplomatic. An aggressive lover versus a persuasive lover — “Come here.” versus “If you come over here, I’ll make it worth your while.”

The second way can be a little more challenging, and that’s by showing your speaker’s body language. “Come here” might be accompanied by a hand on a hip and a finger curling in and out, or pointing at the spot in question. The head might be held a little higher, the chest held upright in perfect posture. Contrast that with someone trying to persuade, where the posture won’t be so assertive: the shoulders might be hunched, the head drawn down on the neck. Instead of pointing at the partner or at the space the speaker desires the listener to occupy, maybe the speaker pats the couch beside him (or her). Maybe s/he is sitting, not standing.

There are a million ways to convey body language, and of course, this is a spot — just like those darn pesky adverbs — that can trip you up. Why? How? Didn’t I just say body language is good?

Yes, but too much of it, or when used at the wrong time, and you’ve undermined yourself.

I know. It’s hard. It’s confusing.

Remember, folks, that writing is a CRAFT. Sometimes, what seems vitally important in the early stages of a manuscript’s development becomes fodder for the delete key later on. And often, the reverse is true as you get to know your characters and the situations they find themselves in.

So give it a try. Take a hard look at your writing. Are you a Tom Swiftly? Do you over-adverb your dialogue tags?

If you need help, you know where and how to reach me. I’m here to help, after all. And in the meantime, keep the questions and good stuff coming!

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Says the Editor: Are you Asking me or Telling me?

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So my post last week spawned some questions.

The first was about the word ASK. When do you use it, and when do you use SAID?

The author asking that is a writer of wonderful romances and women’s fiction. Her books resonate. They’re best-sellers. They win awards. And yet… she’s brave enough to ask this.

Yay for brave authors who are always striving to improve their craft!

I’ve stalled long enough, haven’t I? I’m not stalling because the answer’s not easy. It actually is relatively easy, for fiction — because you’ll notice that near the end of this, part of my answer is going to be all about context and nuance — but of course there’s a BUT. And this BUT is the tough spot. It’s a current belief that you should never use ASK and always use SAID.

I disagree. Here’s why, and it’s pretty simple.

Webster’s defines ASK as:

Definition of ask
asked play \ˈas(k)t, ˈäs(k)t, ˈask; dialectal ˈakst\; asking
transitive verb
1 a : to call on for an answer

She asked him about his trip.

b : to put a question about

asking her opinion

c : speak, utter

ask a question

2 a : to make a request of

She asked her teacher for help.

b : to make a request for

She asked help from her teacher.

3 : to call for : require

a challenge that will ask much of us

4 : to set as a price

asked $3000 for the car

5 : invite

She asked a few friends to the party.

intransitive verb
1 : to seek information

ask for her address

2 : to make a request

asked for food

Almost all of these definitions involve an inquiry (yes, even an asking price!). Therefore, ASK. ASK is the word of inquiries. And while Webster’s doesn’t specifically mention dialogue, it comes close with that top definition. To call on for an answer; to put a question about; to speak, utter. Those all require ASK.

Let’s bring it to dialogue:
To call on for an answer: “Jane, do you know the answer?” the teacher asked.
To put a question about: “Jane, what is your opinion?” the teacher asked.
To speak, utter: “Jane, am I asking you a question?” the teacher asked.

Notice what these sentences all have in common?

Yes.

Question mark.

That’s a tell-tale sign that you should ASK instead of use the more generic SAID.

But what about when the question comes at the start of the dialogue, and declarative sentences follow it?

Now you’re seeing what I meant by context. Look:

“Jane, do you know the answer. It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over, and I know you know it,” the teacher said.

She’s buried the question in front of a bunch of simple declarations. The question isn’t lingering; our focus as readers has moved on to the teacher’s repetition. Maybe the teacher’s prompting here, but she could also be a bit irritated. (As an aside: this is also where you want to be careful with your dialogue tag. You might be tempted to use prompted and tell the reader how the teacher is speaking. Or you might be tempted to use an adverb: the teacher said snappishly, again telling us what’s going on rather than SHOWING. But we’ll get into detail about adverbs in our next post.)

Back to the issue at hand. Look at this example.
“Jane, do you know the answer? It isn’t hard. It’s black and white and read all over and I know you know it. C’mon, Jane, please show me you know,” the teacher asked.

That’s because this final statement is a request. Or, to think of it more organically, if the teacher is prompting, which she seems to be, it’s not a stretch for the reader to imagine the inflection rising at the end of this comment, as if she’s letting an unspoken question hang in the air.

And that’s your difference: is there an unspoken question hanging in the air? Does the speaker’s inflection rise at the end in the classic speech pattern of a question? If so, use ASK.

So… are you WRONG if you prefer SAID over ASK?

No, not technically, because SAID is a catch-all. But yes, I think it does affect the way a reader interacts with the text. I think a reader who doesn’t see ASK in the tag is less likely to mentally add that inflection, and that removes a layer of texture to the narrative. ASK is an easy way to reinforce to the reader that a question is being posed. And like its friend SAID, it often becomes unobstrusive in the prose, there as a cue to the reader in how to interpret the words being spoken, not calling attention to itself while doing an important job.

Because let’s face it: if you have Mikey over here who is incapable of phrasing anything as a question, whose delivery is always flat and devoid of emotion, don’t you have a hard time understanding when Wouldn’t that be fun? is a question and when it’s a rhetorical device, or even sarcasm?

I sure would.

And that’s why I like ASK. It’s got a good friend in SAID, but it adds just a bit more oomph and helps the reader interpret the text.

Let me know what questions this spawns… I’ll keep answering if you keep asking!

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Says The Editor: Dialogue Tags

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Take a good hard look at your dialogue tags. They’ve been a raging inferno of opinions for many, many years now. Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade that it’s better to tell us that Johnny exclaimed, rather than show it. Or, let me put it this way: Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade to both show Johnny’s exclamation AND show it via word choice and exclamation point.

I’m thinking about this because I read a book a bit ago that made me cringe almost the entire way through it. Almost every single attribution — a fancy word for dialogue tag — was something fancy, some word that told us what was going on, even if it had been clearly shown via dialogue and punctuation. And context. In that book, I even came across my all-time favorite, “Shit!” he swore.

People.

Dialogue tags exist for many reasons. Only ONE of those reasons is to let you know how the speaker delivers his or her words.

Sometimes, tags call attention to themselves, and that’s bad. Words shouldn’t call attention to themselves. Not words on their own. It’s the pictures the words create, the mental images, the impressions, the emotions. Words are supposed to cooperate and paint pictures. They’re not supposed to be all grabby, demanding of the reader’s attention and praise. “You’re such a pretty word — who says that? Seriously?

But when you get Jennifer clutched her clenched fists to her chest and jumped up and down, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks flushed. Her cheerleader’s skirt wiggled with her excitement. “Jason, that is so super-duper!” she emoted, well, yeah. That’s overkill. All that imagery… it vanishes, swallowed whole by that one word, emoted.

And that book I was reading? Full of words like that. Weird words, like the author had raided a thesaurus in order to sound fancy and smart.

Truly, using said is sometimes, often, your best choice. It’s unobtrusive. It can remind us who is speaking. It can slow the pace of two people talking, buy the reader time to digest or catch his or her breath. It can let us focus on the other words around it, thereby contributing to that painting that the best writing plants squarely in the reader’s imagination.

And yes, more often than not, we say things. We don’t emote, yell, scream, bellow, holler, grate.

I get that the authors are striving to be great writers. But the thing about great writing is that it doesn’t call attention to itself. Like this, from my buddy Michelle Hazen:

My eyes are as round as greedy gold coins. I have no idea why he just told me that, and I don’t care. I want that collection, want to shoot it into my veins and roll naked in it and drown in the gorgeous, classic sound of song after song brought to life by the needle of my beloved antique turntable.” (A Cruel Kind of Beautiful, Chapter 6)

Yeah, there’s no dialogue in there. But that’s not the point, believe it or not. The point is that this beautiful writing. It evokes.

Your dialogue tags need to work with beautiful prose like this, not against it. Your dialogue tags need to complete a multitude (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) of tasks. Don’t burden them with the sort of action that ultimately undermines your book.

If you need help with this, holler. Sometimes, dialogue tags toe a fine line. But most of the time, remember: simpler is better.

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#SaystheEditor Said, or Asked?

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It’s not just new writers I’ve caught doing this, so it’s worth a mention for all of you to keep an eye out for as you revise your work.

If your characters ask a question, use asked in your dialogue tags.

“How are you today?” Shawn asked.

Believe it or not, I often see: “How are you today?” Shawn said.

Awkward, isn’t it?

If you mean for something that’s phrased as a question to be more of a statement, then show it.

“You not feeling well,” Shawn said with a knowing nod.

 

I spend a lot of time changing said to asked as I edit. Keep an eye out for this. And while you’re at it, consider your tag entirely. Dialogue tags serve a variety of functions. Sometimes, they are merely there for the reader to skim over, so that awareness of who is speaking seeps into their consciousness. Sometimes, tags do more. They set a scene, convey emotion, increase tension, and more.

But sometimes, they intrude. As they do when said is used instead of asked. Sometimes, they interrupt the flow of dialogue. They detract from what’s being said and switch the reader’s focus in an ooh, shiny sort of way. And more.

I know. You never thought this much about tags, other than why it’s not good to use Shawn emoted. Keep them simple, you learned once you escaped the clutches of Evil High School English Teachers.

And no matter what you do, don’t go for “Shit!” he swore.

Ya think?

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