On Dialogue Tags: Why Anything Besides 'Said' And 'Asked' Is Lazy Writing

33 comments

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. 

Wait.

Deep breath. 

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. 

Image of New Yorked (Ash McKenna)
Author: Rob Hart
Price: $12.21
Publisher: Polis Books (2015)
Binding: Paperback, 304 pages
Rob Hart

Column by Rob Hart

Rob Hart is the class director at LitReactor, as well as the publisher at MysteriousPress.com. He's the author of New Yorked, nominated for the Anthony Award for Best First Novel, as well as City of Rose and South Village. Short stories have appeared in publications like Shotgun Honey, Thuglit, Needle, Joyland, All Due Respect, and Helix Literary Magazine. Non-fiction has appeared at Salon, The Daily Beast, Birth.Movies.Death, The Literary Hub, Electric Literature, and Nailed. He lives in New York City. Find him online at www.robwhart.com

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Comments

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading A lot of Brian Evenson December 15, 2011 - 11:14am

Chortles are totally something Stephen Graham Jones would eat.

Frederick's picture
Frederick from Southeast Connecticut is reading Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs By Chuck Klosterman December 15, 2011 - 11:20am

I may have read the next two sentences with a British accent in my head after you mentioned it. 

Joe Stern's picture
Joe Stern from Suffern NY is reading The Girl Who Played With Fire By Stieg Larson. December 15, 2011 - 11:22am

Chortle comes from the Jabberwoky poem, and it is a word invented by Lewis Carroll. 

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 15, 2011 - 11:27am

Great! Now that we know where the word is from, how do we send it back?!

Vinny Mannering's picture
Vinny Mannering from Boston, MA. USA is reading On Fiction Writing December 15, 2011 - 12:02pm

You have to gimble and gable in the wabe to send it back.

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. December 15, 2011 - 12:14pm

Words are tools and chortle is a fine tool. But just like a Planing Form Depth Gauge, chortle is a highly specialized tool that should not be used in ways for which it was not designed.

Other than that I agree with you completely Rob and may I also say I was happy to see you were able to refrain from any extraneous snarking in this post.

spence's picture
spence from planet is reading Books December 15, 2011 - 12:23pm

A creative writing professor once told me to not get fancy with tags because nobody remembers them anyway. So stick with saids and askeds or don't use them at all, like Clevenger teaches. I hate chortling.

NotMarilyn's picture
NotMarilyn from Twin Cities, MN is reading Mistress of Rome by Kate Quinn December 15, 2011 - 12:56pm

Chortle happens to be one of my favorite words. Granted, I don't think I've ever used it, but it is pretty entertaining.

We discussed this very subject in my writers' group pretty recently. It was followed closely behind by a discussion of the most purple prose you can think of, which led into a thorough thrashing of Harlequin romances. Good times.

Nice article with valid points.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 15, 2011 - 1:10pm

Tim - I'm glad you appreciate that I'm reigning in the snark. 

Don't read my Christmas article. 

Tim's picture
Tim from Philadelphia is reading approximately eight different books. Most unsuccessfully. December 15, 2011 - 1:38pm

Don't read my Christmas article.

Lol! Too late. But I gave you a pass on it as the Prots aren't too fond of us Papists either and overall I think they give us true Christians a bad name, what with all their pesky hereticing and schisming all over the place.

.'s picture
. December 15, 2011 - 2:02pm

Doesn't 'asked' seem redundant? I mean the question mark is already there.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 15, 2011 - 2:54pm

Jacks - yes and no. I try to avoid using it, but find instances where I've needed to. And that being said, 'asked' is much better than 'queried' or 'posited' or 'requested.'

misskokamon's picture
misskokamon from San Francisco is reading The Moonlit Mind December 15, 2011 - 2:59pm

I like dialogue tags.

Now, before you take me outside and beat me, let me explain. I avoid dialogue tags, even said and asked, as much as possible. Usually, I lead or follow the dialogue with an action. Dialogue tags as a whole can be avoided if the dialogue takes place in a paragraph.

James paused. Static hummed in the air--a rise and fall of garbled english and white noise. "What the hell...?" He scanned the bridge for any sign of another one of those... those things. He didn't see any monsters--aliens, mutants, whatever the hell they were. The noise crackled from a pile of debris, and he kicked chunks of splintered wood out of the way. A radio, small enough to slip into a pocket, hissed at him from beneath a sheet of rusted metal. James scooped it out of its junk nest. "Damn thing's probably broken." But he dropped it into his front pocket anyway.

 

But I agree with Tim. Words like 'chortle' have their place.  I like the word chortle, when reserved for a character very much like a fat woman with a mouth filled with spray cheese, and if used should only appear ONE TIME in the entirety of the story. Once in awhile, I'll drop in a "replied," "retorted," a "muttered," and a "whispered." While I agree wholeheartedly that describing the action is better, sometimes for the sake of pacing or feeling or whatever it is you want to achieve in that scene, tagging the dialogue with one of those chunky words can have its benefits.

This was an excellent article. A lot of fresh writers make the mistake of remembering what our third grade teachers taught us: "said" and "asked" are boring words, they said. They were wrong, but I think it's wrong to say using chunky words as dialogue tags is bad, too. It's about knowing the rules before you break/bend them. That's what matters.

SGJ's picture
SGJ from Midland, Texas (but in Boulder, Colorado, now) is reading weird fiction and horror fiction and science fiction and literary fiction and innovative fiction, or maybe a romance or a western or a magazine on bowhunting or show trucks or anthropology December 15, 2011 - 7:25pm

yeah, I'd eat a chortle. or, well: I'd look sidelong at it, then direct your attention across the room, and when you looked back, poof, I'm gone, the chortle's gone, and nobody knows what really went down here. and, yeah, 'said' and 'asked' are generally best to stick to, though once you lock on to the full flavor of a well-placed 'told,' man. it's like when you just figured out how semi-colons work: you want to 'told' everywhere. the inflection's built in, the attitude's integral to it. just like with an exclamation point, though: only one, every great once in a while. and of course it's the slipperiest of slopes. but those are far and away the most fun to tell yourself you're not going to fall down. and then to wake up at the bottom of.

also, as you have to be wondering by now, I never allow myself as many colons in prose fiction as I do in comment threads. I tend to uppercase more on the real page as well. but I leave prepositions at the end everything of.

R.Moon's picture
R.Moon from The City of Champions is reading The Last Thing He Wanted by Joan Didion; Story Structure Architect by Victoria Lynn Schimdt PH.D; Creating Characters by the editors of Writer's Digest December 15, 2011 - 8:42pm

Great article Rob. I always use said, asked and their counterparts, says and asks. I took this advice a long time ago from Elmore Leonard. I don't know that I've ever chortled, and I doubt my characters ever will either.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 15, 2011 - 8:59pm

This article is brillaint. 

CStodd's picture
CStodd from NY is reading Annie Prouxl's Fine Just the Way It Is December 15, 2011 - 9:15pm

Rob, thanks so much. Ive actually been fighting myself with simplicity and effectiveness over flowery and seemingly more thoughtful expressions. However, I agree, the negative space that 'said' and 'asked' create is where the story is really told. Thanks 

Ben's picture
Ben from Australia is reading My Booky Wook by Russell Brand December 15, 2011 - 9:16pm

Rob, what are your feelings about "replied"?  You include it in the example for reason number one, but you don't comment on it at all.  I only ask because I seem to have subconsciously stuck with using only "said" and "asked" - and "replied".

Chester Pane's picture
Chester Pane from Portland, Oregon is reading The Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz December 15, 2011 - 9:20pm

Chuckle+Snort=Chortle

I never liked math much, but I like Lewis Carroll. Maybe he should've taken that one to the grave.

Nice article Rob.

Rob's picture
Class Director
Rob from New York City is reading at a fast enough pace it would be cumbersome to update this December 16, 2011 - 6:58am

Ben - Replied is an anonymous enough word that it's not egregious... but I'd argue that you should minimize the use of it as much as possible. After all, shouldn't the reader be able to tell from the conversation that someone is replying to something? 

CrispinXV's picture
CrispinXV from Chicago is reading Damned by Chuck Palahniuk December 16, 2011 - 7:26am

Good article Rob.  I would have to agree with you on the effectiveness of those two simple words.  When I was writing my novel, I had some difficulty when writing the dialogue while still trying to convey the feeling.  It also didn't help that I wrote in first person POV of a female character. (which I do not advise haha)  That is why I chose a more minimalistic style and gave the character a very snarky voice.

Hetch Litman's picture
Hetch Litman from Ojai, Ca. is reading Father and Son by Larry Brown December 16, 2011 - 11:26am

"Meh," he meant it to sound like a sheep and it did, "this whole STRIP IT DOWN TO BARE NOTHING cry will be gone when time ticks to the next hip thing like victorian english or romantic prosy prose." He paused, realigned his hips and pointed out, "It all comes around and goes around like Harley Davidson styles. First it was the full dresser that was cool, then the ripped down chopper and now the combination of both, the bagger." His left hand found the pack of Pall Malls in his vest's inside pocket, "Soon it'll be a beetle bailey wagon trike with a dainty sidecar again," he chortled, face contorting like a fucking priest when an alter boy knocks on his door.

 

sillygirl's picture
sillygirl from Georgia is reading Infinite Jest, The Chronology of Water December 16, 2011 - 12:22pm

I will accept an emotionally unevocative "whispered", maybe the very occasional "muttered", but that's it. If it's a matter of conveying volume, I can deal.

Ben's picture
Ben from Australia is reading My Booky Wook by Russell Brand December 16, 2011 - 4:26pm

Ben - Replied is an anonymous enough word that it's not egregious... but I'd argue that you should minimize the use of it as much as possible. After all, shouldn't the reader be able to tell from the conversation that someone is replying to something?

I'd argue that "asked" isn't all that different, what with a question mark being in place, but I also feel that using "said" after a question looks stupid, so I get your point.  In short, yes, I agree.  Thanks for the article.

EdVaughn's picture
EdVaughn from Louisville, Ky is reading a whole bunch of different stuff December 17, 2011 - 10:07am

Great article. I'll take this advice to heart. I've noticed this in a lot of stuff I've been reading recently too. Mostly noir and transgressive type stuff.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 18, 2011 - 5:45am

I do like to work in the the occasional lied.

Scott Williams's picture
Scott Williams from Brooklyn, NY is reading 11/23/63 December 19, 2011 - 12:25pm

Words are tools used to describe the world and our experiences of it. Some tools are good in very specialized situations. Limiting your tool choice seems like a poor way to work, and may lead to "to a hammer, everything looks like a nail" syndrome.

That said, you have to be discerning in the way you use your tools, too.  You don't use a pipe cutter to strip wires. That's just silly, and possibly dangerous.

Adverbs, dialogue tags and specialized tools are dangerous in the hands of amateurs.  Learning when it's appropriate to use your tools is as important as how, and requires extensive study.  But only a fool goes through his tools and throws out the ones he doesn't like on principle.

 

 

morbo's picture
morbo February 29, 2012 - 2:22pm

There are really two problematic issues here: one is peppering dialog with thesaurus bits, and the other is just plain using boring, nondescript words (you'll have a hard time convincing me that a word so routinely and easily omitted as "say" is really the best possible choice). You can in fact use lots of different thing in place of "say", such as facial expressions ("he scowled") and metaphors ("he shot back"). More importantly, when you use any verb to mark off dialog it ought to convey a quality to the speech that cannot be done so simply another way. "Retort" and "respond" have completely different connotations--one is punchy and a bit dismissive, the other a bit formal, scientific, or solemn. In a tense, dialog-driven scene, interrupting what people say with logn sidebars on how they say it is lessens emotion and drama.

For example, take this example sentence which Rob approves of:

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me."

That's a vast improvement over the original, particularly since "threaten" is fairly redundant when point a gun at someone, but we still don't know what tone of voice John is speaking with. Is he taunting the now-helpless Rick? Is he daring Rick to reach for his own gun? Is he coldly deciding to murder his partner? Triumphant? Angry? You can convey this with a word!

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me," he taunted or jeered or mocked.

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me," he dared Rick. (You might say that this is redundant, since "try and stop me" is already a dare, but it colloquially means "you can't stop me", so if it's being said in a way that actually dares the interlocutor, it may be necessary to convey that.)

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me," he murmured.

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me!" he triumphed.

John clicked off the gun's safety. “Try and stop me!" he raged.

You wouldn't want to disrupt the scene by writing

John clicked off the gun's safety. His expression was calm, if sullen, and he let out a silent breath. “Try and stop me," he said in a low, quiet voice that wasn't quite a whisper.

It's impossible for me at least to read that without feeling a substantial period of time pass, which might not be how you want the scene to play out.

Jerry Dobias's picture
Jerry Dobias June 16, 2014 - 6:48pm

I can't say that I totally disagree.

I do know some people who chortle and I think that someone needs to look that one up and get the full understanding of what that word can mean. It really does convey a specific type of laugh that I've heard and experienced.

That said I grade someone poor on teaching anything here.

This misses the point of its own point when it goes as far as to set out to give such poor examples of what is bad and then such elequent examples of what is good.

In most cases someone could take the dialog from the poor example and put that flowery sounding description of character action of the good example in and make it acceptable so this is mostly an example of how someone should use the many word show in place of the single word tell. I believe when done that way, contrary to what this article is trying to convey, the reader would hardly notice the supposed  faux pas of deviation from a simple said and asked. I can see where the alleged offenders run afoul of this  alleged  difficulty in that they may think that thier sentence exhibits an economy of words as opposed to the exessivness of the good examples. Since they've been warned to avoid such needless excess as it so easily becomes purple prose.

Yes it works to use mostly asked and said and I use them all the time. But, to flout them as rules deviates from the fact that its a style guideline. And, that's wrong, as much as it is to try to say that there is a rule against starting a sentence with but or and.

This is just my uneducated opinion.

J.L.Dobias

 

 

 

Sarah Moreno's picture
Sarah Moreno December 6, 2013 - 5:24pm

If the "said" and "asked" rule are true, and any author cannot expect to be published while using any other dialogue tags, how to you explain JK Rowling's success? She literally breaks every rule known to the publishing industry, and still became a world-renown, fabulously successful author.  Here are my observations:

1.) Overuse of the exclamation point

2.) Use of dialogue tags aside from 'said', 'asked', and 'replied.'

3.) Use of capital letters

4.) Abundant use of the recently-demonized words, 'had', 'have', and 'that.'

5.) Abundant narrative in the place of action via dialogue

Unless the British publishing industry has vastly different standards than those here in the US, please, explain how Ms. Rowling's first manuscript ever managed to get past the dreaded editorial slush-pile.  I'm am dying to know.

Dwayne's picture
Dwayne from Cincinnati, Ohio (suburbs) is reading books that rotate to often to keep this updated December 6, 2013 - 10:40pm

He didn't make any claims about getting out of the slush pile or getting published.

Na Na's picture
Na Na August 20, 2014 - 4:41pm

I am currently in my second year of studying for my Bachelor of Arts in Creative Writing and ANY of my professors would have me fail classes if I repeatedly used "said" and "asked" in works of fiction.

Unless you want the submissions to sound like stories written by toddlers, I suggest letting people use proper language. Limiting us to TWO words there is so painfully crippling I can't even imagine how you can came up with that idea???

The "reasons" given by the author of the article are utterly ridiculous because

1. full sentences to convey the emotions CAN BE USED TOGETHER with various speaking verbs??? There's no rule against it, and

2. with the full context of a sentence in which something is happening and the entire theme of the story I will be able to understand different speaking words? Anyone will??? I won't read a sad story and when the word "lament" shows up I will wonder if it might mean "sing cheerfully".

Tl;dr... If I have to read "said" or "asked" more than three times in a row in any piece of fiction I start gagging and my eyes refuse to even bother with reading on.

EtienneR's picture
EtienneR March 31, 2015 - 2:21pm

Said and 'asked' are the only diaogue tags an author will ever need, and 'asked', as someone said, is redundant.

The brain of the reader interprets 'said' as punctuation, and slides right over it.  Non-standard dialogue tags can and will knock the reader out of the story.  Which is never a good thing.

Take a look at the novels of the late Robert B. Parker, than whom nobody was better at writing crisp, snappy, and often eloquent dialogue.  Parker used 'said' almost exclusively in his 50 plus novels.  All writers would do well to emulate him.

I just finished reviewing a novel that told an interesting story.  Unfortunately, the story was overwhelmed by the author's use of non-standard and invalid dialogue tags - nearly 150 of them by actual count.  You can't 'moan' a sentence, nor can you 'snap' one, or 'demure' one or ... the list is endless. 

John Gardner, in his book "The Art of Fiction" states that the experience reader enters into a fictional dream, and it is the duty of the author not to commit any gaffe that will knock the reader out of that dream.  He is absolutely correct in stating that.

The first thing you have to do when you begin to write seriously, is to forget much of what you learned in school.