Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Dialogue Tags by Dianne K. Salerni

Whether you follow the advice or not, you’ve probably heard writers say that the only dialogue tag you should use is said – possibly with a few other plain ones sprinkled in, like asked or replied. The thinking is that the reader’s eye passes over those words without seeing them and thus remains fully engrossed in the story. I’ve heard it explained that dialogue tags should be like door hinges – functional, but you never look at them.

Of course, when I hear that, I always think: But door hinges can be so pretty!


Recently, I started reading aloud Wonder by R.J. Palacio to my class, and one of the first things that struck me was how often the word said was used. I was surprised – because I had already read this book (silently) on my Kindle, and I never noticed. Which, I suppose, goes to show that the door hinge thinking is correct: My eyes passed over the word without seeing it.

However, when I read the book aloud, I definitely heard it! Said. Said. Said. Said. Wonder is an amazing book – and my students are loving it – but I was bugged enough by the repetition of the word said to tally up the dialogue tags in one of the chapters.

Said – 30
Other tag – 19 (of those, 10 were answered)
No tag – 5

It could be that this overuse of said and answered was deliberate. It’s part of Auggie’s voice, and when I scanned ahead, I saw that other narrators in the book did not use said quite so often. Nevertheless, I rarely saw anything besides said or answered.

I decided to check out a chapter of my own forthcoming MG book to compare styles.

Said – 5
Other tag – 7
No tag – 30

Apparently, I prefer to avoid the dialogue tag altogether by using narration to make it plain who’s speaking. (Well, I was aware that I did that. I just didn’t know how often!)

Again, I want to reiterate that Wonder is an incredible book, very much worth reading. I’m not sure if I would choose to read it aloud again, though.

What do you think about dialogue tags? Since a MG book is more likely to be read aloud than a YA or adult book, do you think a variety of dialogue tags sounds better than the same ones repeated? Or do you prefer narration to take the place of tags? Have you checked the stats on one of your own works?

While we're at it, shall we debate dialogue vs dialog?

27 comments:

  1. Have you ever read any of Raymond Carver's work? It's not YA or MG, but he used "said" a LOT, and he became very famous for his style. His work is absolutely brilliant. Have you ever seen the film SHORTCUTS? That was an adaptation of one of Raymond Carver's books.

    You could be right that it was a style thing in the case you mentioned here. If you have a look at something from Carver, you will really see what a fabulous artistic device it is when used well.

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    1. Jessica, I am betting either I would scan past the "saids" as I did in WONDER, or it would bug the heck out of me! I strive hard to eliminate repetition in my own work, so it stands out to me more, now.

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  2. Interesting topic, Dianne! I've actually been thinking about this lately as I listen to audio books. I tend to hear "said" way more than I thought I would and also a surprise, I hear lots of "he tells me," and "she said to me." (The books I'm thinking of are a Printz honor and an MG by a Newbery winner.) For all the reasons you point out, I wouldn't have expected so many dialogue tags.
    YET, as a reader/listener, I LIKED hearing the tags. They helped me visualize who was speaking and sounded completely natural and organic to me. I found that as a listener, when I hear dialogue without a tag to indicate who's speaking, but an action phrase instead, I don't follow the conversation quite as easily. Which was very surprising, too.
    Great blog, Dianne!

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    1. Victoria,
      Yes, I do think in an audio book, the dialogue tags help the listener keep track. But repetitive words stand out A LOT. Keeping a good balance for visual and auditory pleasure is tricky!

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    2. Following this vein-

      This is something I debate with beta-readers all the time, and like Michael said before me, there is a time and place for everything. I often get told by the various beta-readers I've had over the years (ESPECIALLY if they're parents or teachers) the younger the reader the more you have to put in dialogue tags for easy for the widest range of readers, so if a book's about a 12 year old, it still has to be as accessible to the younger end of of MG. (which is seven or eight depending on how various publishers gauge these things)

      That said, I sometimes suspect when other writers have told me this they're either vastly underestimating readers under 13 in general, or they're seeing it too through the filter of the students they serve (or have served if they're retired) or their own kids. (Who may by the age of my intended readers at the time or when they were that age)

      I'm not a parent or teacher so I have to rely on not just accessing my inner child, but my personal instincts, and maybe I overestimate, but I never want to underestimate because there lies the devil of madness marching the insensitive writer on the path of "Death by egotism."

      My goal is to be at the level where even if you just don't like my book, my aptitude for craft or storytelling isn't some haphazard brick of inaccessible blocks of text (LOL)

      There are plenty of books I respect even if they're not personally engaging to me because I still see why others like them, for example my frustration with constant wave of paranormal and dystopia (present and Past titles reissued) I respect those who do it well, but that doesn't mean I want to join in as an author, and I seriously wish Project Mayhem would do a post about liking a book as a reader but just can't or don't want to write. Period.

      Just because I don't like a certain book or a particular author's slant on things doesn't mean I think they're horrid trash. Or my favorite book by an author could be loathed by more die-hard fans of his more commercially visible work. It's that lack of nuance in not just book reviews but general discussion about books (Whether its in the context of a book club or not) that really concerns me.

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    3. Taurean -- I'll mull over that topic: Liking a book as a reader that I would never write as a writer. Hmm. I DO need a topic for March!

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  3. Love this topic! Dialogue tags are one of those things that I try to vary because (as you noticed) even something simple like "said" can be overused. I prefer to do what you do, which is imply the tag by using narration, but I'm guilty of having my characters hiss or cry or shout (etc.) phrases. Great post!

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    1. Jess, my characters definitely hiss and cry and shout! I do avoid the use of dialogue tags that aren't actually verbs for speaking, such as laugh or nod. (However, I have seen those in the works of best-selling authors.)

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  4. Isn't it interesting how some books are much better read-alouds? It's not always easy to tell until you do it, either.

    And this...
    While we're at it, shall we debate dialogue vs dialog?

    ...just narfs me up everytime.

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    1. Agreed, Susan. In fact, the further I get into reading aloud WONDER, the more I want to take an editing pen to it. It didn't bother me at all when reading silently.

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  5. I definitely notice more use of the tag said in middle grade books rather than leaving it off or using body language. I suppose this is so there's no confusion for the younger reader. But then again, kids are pretty smart and could figure it out. I just know that the earlier the reader the book is for, the more dialogue tags (said) are used. :)

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    1. I actively teach my students how to follow dialogue when there is no tag. It doesn't come naturally to them all.

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  6. I've been reading a lot of first person middle grade stories lately. I see the "said" tag quite a bit, but there's also "say or says" in some books. It's a debatable tense issue. Even MG authors like Rebecca Stead will flip-flop using "said" in her Newbery, WHEN YOU REACH ME. Then in her next book, LIAR AND SPY, she uses "says." Both of them first person tales. Just something I've noticed.

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    1. Greg, I've seen the same! I suppose the author is trying to capture that middle grade voice ... but I really appreciate grammatical consistency.

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  7. It didn't bug me when I read WONDER silently to myself--but now, if I decide to read it aloud to my kid, it probably will!

    I'm like you, Dianne, and use dialogue tags of any sort sparingly. My favorite ploy is to have the speaker do something as an indication of who is speaking. Sometimes, if it's obvious, I leave it out altogether. I think I'll do a little chapter scan of my own today, and see if that is really true!

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    1. Michael, I think one of the main reasons I do is it to reduce word count. I write fat, so dialogue tags are one of the first things I look to cut wherever I can.

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  8. Personally, I find the dialog tag "rule" to be a bit silly. There's a time and a place for everything, and sometimes it works well to have few dialog tags other than said, and sometimes it doesn't.

    But I think you make a great point here, Dianne, in that when done well, it fits with voice, either of the narrator, or the character, or both.

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    1. Matt, the same goes for the ADVERB rule!

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  9. I hear what you are...saying...Dianne. Aloud is a different story, literally. And, unless really necessary, haughty tags like phonated or declaimed or uttered (unless a noise level is involved) are simply distracting. While I do not feel about 'said' the way Joseph Conrad or Steinbeck (great NY Times piece on 'Hooptedoodle') I can see when less is more. Writing so the reader can stay with you and take that journey is what it's all about.

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    1. Eden -- you are absolutely right! Weird dialogue tags are unnecessary, unless you're deliberately trying to be funny or weird. Lemony Snicket is someone who can get away with using those tags.

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  10. Interesting. I like a mix. I do remember one book I couldn't finish because there were lots of dialogue tags, but none of them were "said!" It was as if the author thought "said" was too boring to use. I'm sure nonwriters wouldn't even notice, but it bugged me too much.

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    1. Dee -- Yup! You can go too far the other way, too, so that it looks like you wrote the dialogue tags with a thesaurus beside you. That would turn me off quick.

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  11. Great post. Good food for thought. I had a similar experience not long ago reading something out loud. I was surprised by how much those "said" tags jumped out. I'm wondering if words that are more visible in reading (something like "exclaimed") would be less visible when read out loud? Or, would they be even more noticeable than the use of "said"? The things authors think about late at night...

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    1. Braden, When I read out loud to my class, I prefer a variety of tags and have no problem with "exclaimed" and "shouted" and "hissed."

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  13. Ooh, interesting, I'm totally curious to tally up a chapter's worth of dialogue tags in my own work now. (I think) I know my tendencies as a writer, but as a reader, I'm not sure I care, so long as it works for the voice.

    Reading aloud, I will fess up to editing Rowling (!!!) because those adverbs in so many of dialogue tags are super annoying when you're already saying it happily or angrily or whatnot. (I'm not an adverb-hater, but I think most of the time Rowling's dialogue itself is clear enough that it really doesn't need the adverbial assistance.)

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  14. I remember noticing this first in Rowling, too - how often plain old "said" popped up. I think I tend to do more narrative action to show who's speaking as well, but I've recently thought about popping a few adverbs in (gasp!) - mainly because I enjoy reading them in moderation. Reading that a character said something absently or matter of factly or something does add depth. Because of my fear of adverbs I think I usually replace this with a simile, but that can lead to clunky writing, too.

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Thanks for adding to the mayhem!