Sunday, September 2, 2007

Dialogue Tags and Mechanics, IV


Verbs of intonation—though they often become preposterous—at least try to serve the same purpose as ‘said,’ even as they fluster and giggle themselves into cuckooland. There exists, however, another entire category of said substitutes that, rather than trying to show intonation, explain or expand on the dialogue. Most writers are familiar with the old saw, “Show, don’t tell;” dialogue tags of this type are designed to tell what presumably ought to have been shown only a few words previously.

It can be difficult to distinguish writers who fear their dialogue doesn’t convey enough from those who think their readers are rather dense; some may believe both at once. In any case, this kind of dialogue can be hilarious in its redundancy:

“You bet I will!” he affirmed.

“Do you think that’s possible?” he wondered.

“I disagree with this!” he objected.

And, of course, the champion of them all, from Robert Ludlum’s The Bourne Ultimatum:

“I repeat,” repeated Alex.

Redundancy is usually just clumsiness. But sometimes writers have other goals. The dialog may not be definitive enough to carry the message—or so they worry—and therefore they prop it up with ‘taunted,’ ‘teased,’ or ‘joked.’ (Or ‘threatened,’ ‘hinted,’ or ‘insinuated.’) And, true, sometimes the reading of even a good line may not be found in the line. “Don’t make me kill you,” could be a genuine threat or a mild joke. But if we need to be told that it is a joke, there must be something severely lacking in the characterization, the atmosphere of the scene, and the context of the surrounding sentences.

The intrusion of the author with a verb in the dialogue tag at such a point is as arbitrary as a laugh-track, and because it interferes directly with the mechanics of dialogue conventions, it is clear that it is the writer telling us what to think.

Some writers defend their “mused,” or “expounded,” or “lectured” on grounds of economy. Indeed, it is more economical than giving full context. It is also more economical to say, ‘John was mad,’ than to dramatize John’s anger and let the reader work it out. More economical is not always more effective.

The purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader which character said the words within the quotation marks. It is not the place for characterization, or describing action, or conveying mental states. The tag is a very simple mechanism, and loading more freight onto such a slender bar can deform it.


Said substitutes can endeavor to be funny, or to describe tone of voice, or to tell us something about motivation. Most of the time, such efforts are suspect, and more likely to detract from the story than add, but at least they have a purpose. But some ‘said’ substitutes seem to have no reason to exist other than a writer’s desire for variety. What possible good is “he replied,” or “he answered”? In what context and with what dialogue would this not be obvious?

Even odder are constructions such as “he stated,” “he uttered,” or “he articulated.” (As a number of friends have pointed out, JK Rowling is fond of "he ejaculated." Talk about distracting...) These words may seem to add weight to the wispy verb ‘said,’ but weight isn’t what is wanted. If the message that the reader takes away from your carefully crafted dialogue is not the power and sense of the dialogue itself, but rather the fact that it was ‘intoned,’ then you have cut the feet from beneath your story.

There are greater sins in dialogue tags than ‘said’ substitutes: adverbs that clamor for attention, overlong ‘as’ clauses that try to hitch a ride, and trailing actions that run on so long that the dialogue is forgotten by the end of the sentence. But these bad habits all begin, I believe, when the writer first attempts to be creative with the attribution verb itself. Instead of being a simple pointer to the speaker, the dialogue tag becomes a handy crate, which can be loaded with whatever junk the author finds it convenient to stuff inside.

“A dialogue tag shouldn’t carry much freight,” she cautioned ominously yet imperturbably as she sat at her keyboard, turning occasionally to glance out the window to see if the crows, which had been nesting in the twisted Ponderosa Pine just visible through the dusty glass, had returned with more roadkill to feed to their ravenous, cawing young.

“I see what you mean,” he said.

Oh, and adverbs...well, that's another post or two.


Neil said...

Hi, David,

I've found this the most thought-provoking of your dialogue tag pieces, and am not sure I completely agree with what you say about disapproving of descriptive tags. I'll give it some thought. The Bourne Ultimatum quote is classy though. We are most amused.

PS - when's publication day again?

David Isaak said...

Hi Neil,

Plenty of people disagree with my dialogue theories. Some of them have even gone on to lead healthy, productive lives...I guess. Not that I'm dogmatic about it or anything.

(Doesn't "Dogmatic" sound like some new invention for canines? Tired of cleaning up after your pet? Bored with brushing your dog's coat? Fed up with filling Rover's bowl every day? The new Dogmatic does it all this and more, for only pennies a day...

Pub day is this Friday--thanks for asking!

Jake Jesson said...

Now to transform "dogmatic" into a dialogue tag.

Ex: "A dialogue tag shouldn’t carry much freight," he said dogmatically.

Or, you could go even further by creatively conjugating the word itself. Ex: "Beware 'said' substitutes," he dogmated."

Ah, the horizons that open! (he exclaimed horizontally.)