On Dialogue Tags: Why Anything Besides 'Said' And 'Asked' Is Lazy Writing
Chortled* is a verb. The definition is: To laugh in a breathy, gleeful way; chuckle. And it is a horrible, terrible, stupid word. For me it conjures the image of an obese woman laughing through a mouthful of spray cheese. I don’t know where it came from, but I do know we should send it back and light it on fire.
Let’s step back for a second.
Recently a former cohort from my journalism days--and a damn good crime reporter--asked me to look at some pages he had written. He'd gotten bit by the fiction bug and hammered out the beginnings of a novel.
The first chapter showed a great deal of promise, except his dialogue tags were all over the map. His characters didn’t say anything. They didn’t ask questions. They exclaimed and sighed and grunted. They bellowed and wailed and gasped. They even (shudder) chortled.
One of the things they hammer into your head in J-school is that, when you attribute dialogue in a news story, there are only two words you should ever have to use: Said and asked. A news report is just the facts. No need to get fancy.
I’m a firm believer that the same holds true for fiction.
Dialogue is a hard thing to write. People talk funny. They intone and they stutter and they pause and they think. It’s hard to convey emotion and subtext through the written word. For all you know I could have dictated this paragraph in an exaggerated British accent. There's no way for you to tell!
So, facing the uphill battle of conveying emotion through words, writers get caught in the trap of using exaggerated dialogue tags because they’re a quick, easy fix. Is someone mad? Then they can snarl.
But that doesn't tell a story. That’s your job. Your job is to make your reader feel something, not batter them over the head with silly words.
Said and asked. That’s it. Always and forever. I believe it’s important for two reasons:
REASON NUMERO UNO
Crazy dialogue tags break a cardinal rule of writing. They tell instead of show.
Let’s try an example to illustrate this point. Here’s an exchange between two bank robbers who were double-crossed by a woman they both love, and also there are space aliens (but that comes later in the story so it’s not relevant right now):
“The gold isn’t here,” Rick exclaimed.
“That’s because the dame stole it,” John replied.
“Don’t call her a dame, you son of a bitch,” Rick growled.
“Try and stop me,” John threatened, pointing a gun at Rick’s chest.
All of the emotions are there. Except it’s sort of flat, isn’t it? Can you feel the tension between the two of them? I can’t and I wrote it. We know Rick is angry because he growled at John, but what does that even mean?
Let’s try it again:
Rick snapped his head around the empty bank vault. “The gold isn’t here,” he said.
John ground his teeth and said, “That’s because the dame stole it.”
Rick caught John's eyes in a death grip. “Don’t call her a dame, you son of a bitch.”
John pointed his gun at Rick’s chest and clicked off the safety. “Try and stop me,” he said.
Okay, it’s not Shakespeare. But do you see what I did there? Rick doesn’t need to exclaim anything about the gold, because he’s snapping his head around, so we know that he’s frantic. He doesn’t need to growl because he deliberately looks Rick in the eye. And we don’t need to know that John threatened Rick. John is holding a loaded gun to Rick’s chest.
Dialogue tags are a crutch. They’re a distraction from what you should really be doing: Conveying things through actions, word choice and mannerisms.
REASON NUMERO DOS
Said and asked are beautiful in their simplicity. They are completely anonymous words. We know what they mean. We’ve seen them so often that our eyes recognize the shape and convey the meaning with zero effort. We glide right over them.
That’s very important when you’re reading dialogue. Dialogue flows. Conversations don’t stop so we can figure out what people are feeling. We intuit it. And having these nearly-meaningless words to steer you along means that you’re not pausing to figure anything out.
But when you see that a character retorted or blustered or hissed, your brain slows down. There’s something there you need to process. It’s momentary, probably imperceptible, but when it comes to writing a flowing conversation, the pause may as well last for hours.
In writing, everything counts. Where you put your periods. The white space between the paragraph breaks. Everything. And said and asked are very valuable tools in your arsenal. Because they get the job done and get the fuck out of the way. They're so good at it, they can completely disappear when you need them to.
Let's visit Rick and John again:
Rick snapped his head around the empty bank vault. John slammed his boot into the wall, denting a safety deposit box.
“The gold isn’t here," Rick said.
“That’s because the dame stole it.”
“Don’t call her a dame, you son of a bitch.”
John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me."
In the opening sentences, we set the emotions of the scene. Rick is snapping his head around; he's panicked. John slams his foot into the wall; he's pissed.
Instead of belaboring the point and coddling the reader, we've subtly set up the ways in which Rick and John are reacting to this situation, and those feelings can then be telegraphed over the dialogue. Compare this to the first example of Rick and John. Again, this isn't great writing, but doesn't it just flow so much better?
SO, WHAT NOW?
After I read the pages my friend had sent me, I invited him over, made tacos, and we retired to the back yard with a bottle of whiskey. I spent a lot of time explaining dialogue tags. I didn’t want to see words like chortled dragging him down. That would be tragic.
He took my advice and swapped over to said and asked for the next chapter. The dialogue on those pages sang. Mission accomplished.
Everyone is entitled to their own opinion. This is AmericaTM. There's some debate on the topic of dialogue tags, and I won't link to anyone in particular because I don't want to be perceived as attacking anyone directly. Just know that some people feel differently about this (even if I think those people are wrong).
Because, in the end, expressive dialogue tags are the laugh tracks of the writing world. If you have to tell the audience when to laugh, is it even really that funny in the first place?
*The above image is what comes up when you search 'chortle' on Google Images. Do not eat these.
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