So I Says to the Guy, I Says, “Just Say ‘Said'”

I’ve had some time to reflect on my rant about dialect in dialogue, and I’ve reached a couple of conclusions.

I still feel that way.

I think I have another rant in me.

Today, I want to complain about dialogue tags. I’m a purist. I think the only two appropriate dialogue tags are “said” and “asked.” I will probably spend the rest of my career using only those two tags. I have been lenient with those I’ve edited, and I’ve permitted maybe three others, but I’ve cut far more than I’ve left behind. Part of it is my roots in newspaper journalism, where the mantra is “full name with title said, last name said, he/she said, he/she added.” But the truth is that I just don’t see that there’s much need for other tags.

Honestly, that’s the least of my problems with dialogue tags. I’ve got three more that are probably worse.

It’s a slippery slope. It all starts innocently enough. First, it’s “he cried.” Then “she yelled.” Before long, it’s “she wailed” or “he growled.” And everyone, for some reason, wants to have a character hiss something. It all leads to one place – the use of the word “ejaculated” as a dialogue tag. No one ever sees “ejaculated” at the bottom of the slippery slope, but I’ve seen too many writers end up there. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

It’s telling and not showing. Your dialogue tag, which I want to change without even really seeing it, is there to tell me how your character is speaking. It’s better if you show me how your character is speaking. You can do this in the dialogue itself. “But Daaaaaaad!” is whining. You don’t have to tell me that. Or you can set the whole thing up before we get to dialogue. In my newspaper days, I’d set you up with a description of the speaker and probably his voice and speech patterns before you get any quotes. You can do the same thing in fiction by sprinkling details about the character throughout the narrative. By the time we get to actual speech, I should have some idea how he sounds.

If you’re already showing, then it’s redundant. Up there, where we’re trying to talk sense to Dad, is a good example. “’But Daaaaaaad!’ he whined,” is redundant. “’B-b-but D-D-Dad!’ he stammered,” is also redundant. That problem goes away with “said.” Alternately, you could drop the tag altogether and let the dialogue do the heavy lifting.

“Said” and “asked” disappear into the background of your writing. Some writers complain about that; I think they’re hoping for an opportunity to reveal their clever use of words. I’m on the lookout for those folks. Showcase your talent through the characters, through the dialogue, through the story itself. Let the tags fade away behind the real content. Give the actual story a chance to shine, and no one will see that you’re only using two tags.

**Freelance editor Lexi Walker will be posting on issues of grammar, usage, and style twice monthly. She knows that her firm approach to editing stings a little but prefers to think that the momentary discomfort means the process is working.

2 thoughts on “So I Says to the Guy, I Says, “Just Say ‘Said'”

  • I agree, Lexi. I really dislike the “yells” and other similar tags, especially when it’s something that’s physically impossible, like: “You’re stepping on my foot,” he grunted. I mean, try it. Can you really “grunt” that? Often you don’t need to use anything, just the dialogue itself.

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