Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Dialogue Mechanics VI (What, Still?)


Since I’m on a prolonged rant, let me make a brief mention of ordering within the dialogue tag. Technically, both

“Hello,” she said.


“Hello,” said she.

are both correct. And I’ve seen some writers in workshops who switch them around at random moments, said-she following she-said, apparently for the sake of variety.

I find said she jarring. At times, it strikes me as stilted and a bit archaic, with a Quoth-the-Raven flavor. At other moments, it reminds me of a bad children’s book:

“Look, Jane!” said Dick. “See Spot run!”
“Run, Spot, run!” said Jane.

When in doubt, try moving the tag to the front of the sentence. If it sounds odd there, then it’s probably sounding odd to some of us elsewhere:

Said she, “Hello.”

See what I mean?


If you’ve read my previous remarks on dialogue tags, you probably won’t be surprised to hear that I don’t care for adverbs in tags. Unusual attribution verbs draw my attention; loading on an adverb compounds the problem. It makes me terribly conscious of the fact that there’s an author lurking on the page.

Now, odd attribution verbs and adverbs modifying them don’t always knock me out of the story. If the author is talented enough, I may gloss right across them. But since I see them as a potential sticky spot in the prose, I avoid them.

If I were unable to live without them, though, I’d worry about where I put them. For instance

“You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet,” he hinted ominously.

By the time I finish that line, I’m thinking about ominous hinting. I’ve pretty much forgotten about the letter. This is especially a problem if the dialogue is good (unlike my example), as the dialogue tag shouts too loudly. At the minimum, if I’d die without ominous hints, I’d at least rearrange it to end on the dialogue (see remarks under DICK AND JANE):

He hinted ominously, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

This way we at least get the attribution out of the way so we can pay attention to the dialogue. When I suggest this to writers who are addicted to “creative” dialogue tags, they tend to say, but He hinted ominously looks weird at the beginning of the sentence. True enough. If you pay attention, it looks pretty darn weird anywhere in the sentence, while there’s no problem with

He said, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

Of course, if you don’t think the ominous line gets enough ominosity (excuse me—I meant ominosituousness) from the words themselves, you can always add business:

He held his breath for a moment before he said, “You haven’t seen what’s in the letter yet.”

In addition to being distracting, most of the –ly adverbs that pop up in tags are abstract and judgmental. Excitedly, nervously, ominously, heatedly, and their allies all lean more toward telling and less toward showing. Most of us have learned to dramatize important moments rather than explaining them—having a man leave the room by slamming the door, rather than having him leave “angrily”; but some writers are still comfortable with having those –ly adverbs in their dialogue tags, as though the tags are a nature preserve for endangered abstractions.

These sorts of things can be overlooked or ignored by readers, but they certainly don’t make for stronger writing.

Or so said I.

1 comment:

Jeremy James said...

"I am eating up your posts on craft," I said ravenously.