Now for one of my pet peeves. I’ve noticed, as I’m sure many of you have, an increasing trend in modern fiction: the use of non-speech verbs as dialogue tags.
“That is the ugliest prom dress I’ve ever seen,” said Jessica, cringing.
“That is the ugliest prom dress I’ve ever seen,” cringed Jessica.
I think I understand why writers do this. They feel it streamlines the text and gets rid of unnecessary words. The “said” is implied by the quotation marks, right, so why does it need to be spelled out for the reader?
While this may be true, using non-speech verbs in this manner feels very awkward and incorrect to me. I’m sorry, you can’t cringe dialogue, no matter how hard you try.
Now, I’ve been known to push the envelope with verbs like “hiss” and “laugh.” Hiss has long been a subject of controversy when it comes to dialogue, with one faction arguing rather vociferously that you simply can’t hiss your words. Personally, I don’t mind hiss as a dialogue tag. I know you can hiss words. I had a rather scary fourth-grade music teacher who was champ at it when she got angry. Which was rather a lot…
I also think it’s possible to laugh words. You know, when you’re trying to speak but you’re laughing so hard that your words come out sounding a little choked up and trembling with your laughter.
These work for me. But what I really find distracting are words that are not even close to being speech-related used as dialogue tags:
“Hi there,” waved Jim.
“What a lovely day it is,” smiled Mary.
No, no, no, I say, cringing. (NOT: No, no, no, I cringe.)
Use of non-speech verbs this way will just never feel right to me. More importantly, I think it should be avoided because it has the potential to be distracting for many readers. (I've also heard that some industry professionals feel that it gives your writing an amateurish look.) But perhaps that’s me being old-fashioned when it comes to dialogue. What do you think?photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc