Part of the "Variety Is the Spice of Life, and I Need Some Tums" set of essays. For the others, see:
Purple Fanfic's (total lack of) Majesty | Epithets: Fandom's Designated Hitters
written December 2004
Many people seem to be afraid to repeat the word "said" in dialogue tags -- the phrases that explain who's talking, and in what manner. And like epithets, this attempt to jazz up a story to keep it from being boring often backfires.
I just found a story where I stopped reading after a few paragraphs, and started skimming and counting. In a 652-paragraph story, there were 457 dialogue tags. Of those 457, only 27 were "said" (or "said + adverb"), and 66 were "asked" (or "asked + adverb"). That leaves 364 bits of dialogue presented with a specific tone/emotion.
These characters didn't talk to each other. They:
Tiring, isn't it? It's a wonder they had the energy to get up the next day. And yet this sort of thing isn't uncommon in fanfic. The other version of that is "said + adverb", where authors use "said" a lot, but worry that it's not enough, so all the tags are things like:
Sometimes it's even worse: people think that even the variant words don't provide enough emoting on their own, so they add adjectives. Like these:
None of those words, or combinations of words, is inherently bad. Used in moderation, they can add a lot to a story. Used to excess, they can, and do, badly weaken stories.
"Said" and "asked" are invisible words; readers notice them only enough to confirm that yes, this is dialogue, between certain characters. They won't slow any readers down, or bore them.
The alternatives, though, demand attention.
They generally suggest an emotional or physical state, something that the reader is forced to notice. Readers actually wind up paying less attention to what's being said, in favor of paying attention to how it's being said, because if there's that much emphasis being placed on the how, well -- that must be the important bit.
What that gives you is not only a story where the reader is having to stop at the end of every bit of dialogue to acknowledge the speaker's state of mind, but one where she's being told the state of mind, instead of shown it.
I'm not saying that every piece of dialogue should be followed by "said" or "asked". Not at all. I totally agree with the notion that that would be incredibly boring, and I've read fanfic that confirms it. But most people do tend to just talk, when they talk; they don't emote everything they say.
So how to present conversations without boring your readers or turning your characters into drama queens?
Use "said" and "asked" as your default dialogue tags. But don't fall into the trap of thinking that you have to use a tag on every bit of dialogue. You don't even need to use it on most of the dialogue.
Look at this exchange, written three different ways -- first with varying dialogue tags, then with only "said" tags, then with no tags:
"Dammit, Clark," Lex growled angrily. He took a deep breath and put his glass down. "What right do you have to just come barging in like this?" he added, more evenly.
"You gave me a key," Clark protested.
"That doesn't mean I gave up all right to privacy!" Lex shouted.
"Well, excuse me!" Clark yelled back. He yanked the key out of his pocket and slapped it down. "Here, take your damn key," he shouted, and left with a final glare.
Lex stared at the key on the table, then picked up his drink again and toasted the empty room. "Happy anniversary," he muttered with a bitter smile.
"Dammit, Clark," Lex said angrily. He took a deep breath and put his glass down. "What right do you have to just come barging in like this?" he asked, more evenly.
"You gave me a key," Clark said.
"That doesn't mean I gave up all right to privacy!" Lex said.
"Well, excuse me!" Clark said angrily. He yanked the key out of his pocket and slapped it down. "Here, take your damn key," he said, and left with a final glare.
Lex stared at the key on the table, then picked up his drink again and toasted the empty room. "Happy anniversary," he said with a bitter smile.
"Dammit, Clark." Lex's fingers tightened on the glass in his hand until he heard it creak. He turned away from Clark and took a deep breath, then carefully put the glass down on the table, letting go of it gently. When he was sure he had his voice completely under control again, he looked at Clark. "What right do you have to come barging in like this?"
"You gave me a key."
Lips twisting into a humorless smile, Lex shook his head. "That doesn't mean I gave up all right to privacy."
"Well, excuse me." Clark reached into his pocket and yanked out the key Lex had given him six months ago, when they'd promised each other there would be no more secrets. "Here, take the damn thing." He slapped it down on the table, glaring, then turned on his heel and walked out the door.
Lex stared at the key on the table, then picked up his drink again and toasted the empty room with a bitter smile. "Happy anniversary."
There's nothing technically wrong with any of these, but imagine if those styles of writing were extended out to full stories. The first would be melodramatic; the second would be flat, or so full of adjectives to set off the "said"s from each other that it would be as melodramatic as the first style.
The third style is the most likely to survive being extended out that far, because it provides a lot more for the reader to look at in her mind's eye -- it shows, instead of telling. Even so, it would start to become obvious (and therefore distracting) after a while.
The strongest writing has a combination of no dialogue tags, "said" and "asked", and scattered variations, used specifically to emphasize a tone or emotion.
"Okay, Lex, enough is enough. Where are we going?" Clark asked, watching unfamiliar countryside fly by the Porsche's windows.
Lex smiled. "Patience is a virtue, Clark."
"Ah-ha! So you are interested in my virtue." The car swerved ever so slightly. Clark grinned and settled himself more comfortably in his seat.
"We're almost there," Lex said a few minutes later.
Clark squinted through the windshield at the town that was getting closer by the second. "You're still not going to tell me where 'there' is, are you?"
"You're pretty smart -- I'm sure you'll figure it out," Lex said, in a voice that sent shivers up Clark's spine.
Hotels. Towns had hotels. Or motels. Or something. Anonymous somethings, where no one knew either of them.
He glanced at Lex's profile again, wondering if he was really ready for this. He barely noticed the car turning and stopping, too caught up in the subtle play of expression across Lex's face. When Lex turned to look at him, his breath caught on a surge of pure need as his focus narrowed down to Lex's lips.
Oh, God, was he ready for this.
"Clark," Lex murmured, putting a hand on his thigh.
"Yes," he gasped.
"We're here." Lex patted his thigh and gestured out the windshield.
Clark blinked as he obediently looked out, then turned back to stare at Lex. "It's... an ice cream stand."
"Best ice cream in Kansas!" Lex pulled off his sunglasses and raised his eyebrows at him, a smile playing over his lips.
Clark dropped his head back against the seat and blew out a shaky breath. "You bastard."
Lex chuckled softly. "C'mon. It really is the best ice cream in Kansas."
A lot of writers like using variant dialogue tags because they think it saves them the work of having to build emotion in; if Jack O'Neill is shouting, well, clearly, he's angry about something. But if he's always shouting, and yelling, and muttering, and grousing, and grumbling, and barking, and commanding, and cajoling, and wheedling, and fuming -- it all starts to blur together into a meaningless background sound.
A story is much stronger when most of the dialogue tags are invisible or non-existent, and the author puts the emotion and acting into the words and the surrounding description.