Friday, June 15, 2012

Say what?!

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.

For example:

“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?

-Dawn Lairamore

photo credit: Ian Sane via photopin cc


  1. I totally agree with you. My copyeditor will only let my characters hiss words when the words have the letter s in them, and I can go with that. I can't stand it when characters smile their dialogue. To me this is an offshoot of what I call Fear of Adverbs -- when writers reject perfectly good words or use them mistakenly in an effort either to streamline or to show, rather than tell. Sometimes telling is good (she said resolutely).

  2. Ha! Dawn, you are so speaking my language! You cannot cringe a word! ;) Dawn and I have the same editor too, so I know exactly what she speaks of!

  3. I'm all for a little figurative verb use (diction is your friend) but there's a thin geeky line beyond which ... it just doesn't work.

    Besides: “That is the ugliest prom dress I’ve ever seen,” cringed Jessica."

    Works just fine if you write it: “That is the ugliest prom dress I’ve ever seen.” Jessica cringed.

    You can completely skip dialog tags if you attribute the dialog by following (or preceding) it with some action.

    So yes, that example still sounds a bit clunky, but it's better than it was.

  4. You absolutely cannot cringe a word and I don't think you can smile one, either. I try to be very exact about that sort of thing in my writing, but my copy-editor caught a character sighing a whole sentence and had me change that. Ooops. Sometimes they slip by!

  5. I agree with Matthew. All these weird dialogue tags can just be turned into action beats. Changing the structure and having two sentences where there was once one gets rid of that implication that a person can cringe her words.

  6. I think you and all the commenters are right on the money with this one.

  7. Actually, I think it's way around using adverbs in dialogue tags. The temptation is to say "said cringingly," not "she said, cringing," so people try to circumvent the whole thing.

    At any rate, I don't have a problem with using words like that as long as it's done sparingly.

  8. Thanks, everyone. I appreciate hearing your thoughts :)


Thanks for adding to the mayhem!