Saturday, June 19, 2010

Writing Hints -- Tags

When writing dialogue, letting the reader know who is speaking is a good idea. There are things about dialogue that I'll deal with at a different time. This is about speaker identification.

Using things like he said, she asked, he answered or responded are the easiest way but so often this falls into a pattern and the writer decides to get clever and to use different words. Sometimes the choice of the tag word seems silly. He hissed is one I find funny unless the writer has used a lot of words with esses. The funniest one I ever read was "Let me go," she ejaculated. I kid you not this was in a manuscript I was critiquing. One problem with using other things to avoid using said, a word many readers skip over, is becoming so clever the reader wants to see what interesting new word you're going to substitute and the story is lost.

There are ways of avoiding these and one is showing the speaker taking some kind of action. "I will not go with you." Mary crossed her arms on her chest.
Mark glared. "You certainly will." This devise can be especially useful when there are a number of people in the scene. Nothing confuses a reader more than having to figure which character is speaking.

Now we come to adverbs. He said angrily. She said coyly. The use of adverbs with every tag or with many of them also can annoy a reader. Adverbs are best sprinkled in very, very small doses. Instead of adverbs, show how the person is speaking by an action or a choice of words.


Terri said...

Okay. She ejaculated. I Laughed. Out. Loud.

Stephen King's On Writing has some great thoughts on this subject. Funny thing. At the time I was reading that, I had also cracked open The Stand, because so many people told me I should. Other things intruded and I never got very far. But I came to a page very early in, on which there were three or four adverb tags. Typical case of do as I say, not as I do!

(I expect to reopen The Stand at some point. But I've got so many other delicious TBRs calling my name.)

Anonymous said...

Hi Janet!

I'm really enjoying your blog! It's full of great info and tips. Thanks for sharing your wisdom with us rookies!

Lee Anne Phillips said...

You might look around for a copy of The Said Book, by J.I. Rodale and Mabel Mulock. I have a treasured copy of the revised and updated 1949 edition, and it's a wonderful source of things not to do and words not to write.

The overuse of adverbs is often termed a Tom Swiftyism. after the Tom Swifties that were popular some years ago.

"Fire!" said Tom alarmingly.

"Are you a homosexual too?" Tom queried gaily.

It's perilously easy to make a perfect good sentence sound like a failed pun with the addition of an adverb or two.

And it's not just adverbs, Said Bookisms can wreak the same mischief.

"The fire's as hot as I can make it!" Tom bellowed.

"Is there any Merlot left?" Tom whined.