Tuesday, October 19, 2010

"He said, She said ..." Hmm. I Wonder What That's About.

We are moving right along as we always seem to do over this way. And while you're busy visiting some of the other authors hanging around, and learning about their books, we thought you'd also enjoy taking a gander at what happens when an author uses too many tags when she or he is writing that unique piece of dialogue.

Linore is here again with a great writing tip for you and me. Let's read on.

He Said, She Said:
Using Too Many Tags in Dialogue

Writing Tip #5

by Linore Rose Burkard

When I look at portions of work by newer writers, it is common to find them doing one of two things when it comes to dialogue tags: they either use too many tags or not enough. Both tendencies adversely affect writing, make readers cringe, or tell an editor or agent to stop reading. Since we want people to KEEP reading, how we do avoid both pitfalls?

First, let's look at the problem with using too many tags (A dialogue tag is when you follow dialogue with something like "he said," "she laughed," etc.) The first rule of thumb when adding a tag is to ask yourself,

Is it Necessary?

A tag is only necessary when you need to clarify who is speaking, or to show a reaction that might otherwise be missed. If you insert tags when they are not needed, you risk using too many and this makes the writing awkward.

To tell if you are using too many tags, backtrack a paragraph or two when you're editing your work, and try the dialogue WITHOUT the tags in question. Does it still work? Still make sense? Can you easily tell who is talking? IF the answer is 'yes' to these questions, then you don't need the tag. Cut it out.

Using many tags when they're not necessary makes a work stilted; the dialogue will suffer; and the reader will groan. Don't make your reader groan!

Is Something Missing?

On the other hand, however, if you fail to give enough clues about who is speaking, this too, will make for unhappy readers. They will feel as though they're missing something, and this is frustrating. They will have to go back and try to figure out who is saying what. Ideally, when your characters are really strong, there will be occasions when you can omit a tag simply because the spoken words are so distinctly characteristic of that person, that it becomes redundant to use one. But be sure about this; use a critique partner or two to make sure. If it turns out that readers are confused, then you need a tag. Keep it in.

Is it Character-Driven?

There are occasions when it's right and good to use a tag even though the reader knows who is speaking. This may sound counter to what I said earlier, but the key here are the words, character-driven. This means that it is important for the reader, not only to know who is speaking, but to know HOW the character is saying or thinking a thing. In other words, you want to clarify an emotion that isn't perhaps altogether clear from the words alone. In some cases you may need to specify the tone of voice; or an accompanying gesture the character makes while talking.

I would caution you not to do this often, and again, use critique readers or beta readers, or an editor to take a second look when there is any question about this.

Also, be sure not to overdo it. Having a heroine who sighs heavily once or twice a chapter is probably fine; any more than that and the reader will be sighing heavily.

To emphasize the point of using too many tags, I leave you with an old poem by the humorist Franklin P. Adams. (Read it and learn!)

Monotonous Variety
(All of them from two stories in a single magazine.)

She "greeted" and he "volunteered";
     She "giggled": he "asserted";

She "queried" and he "lightly veered";

     She "drawled" and he "averted";

She "scoffed," she "laughed" and he "averred";

     He "mumbled," "parried," and "demurred."

She "languidly responded"; he

     "Incautiously assented";

Doretta "proffered lazily";

     Will "speedily invented";

She "parried," "whispered," "bade," and "mused";

     He "urged," "acknowledged," and "refused."

She "softly added"; "she alleged";

     He "consciously invited";

She "then corrected"; William "hedged";

     She "prettily recited";

She "nodded" "stormed," and "acquiesced";

     He "promised," "hastened," and "confessed."

Doretta "chided"; "cautioned" Will;

     She "voiced" and he "defended";

She "vouchsafed"; he "continued still";

     She "sneered" and he "amended";

She "smiled," she "twitted," and she "dared"

     He "scorned," "exclaimed," "pronounced," and "flared."

He "waived," "believed," "explained," and "tried";

     "Commented" she; he "muttered";

She "blushed," she "dimpled," and she "sighed";

     He 'ventured" and he "stuttered";

She "spoke," "suggested," and "pursued";

     He "pleaded," "pouted," "called," and "viewed."

O syonymble writers, ye
 Whose work is so high-pricey.
 Think ye not that variety
 May haply be too spicy?
 Meseems that in an elder day
 They had a thing or two to--say.
Franklin P. Adams
PS: Did you notice that he used the word "twitted"? Nowadays, we can use that one with a completely different meaning. But no matter what words you use, strike a balance so that you don't use too many tags, or too few. Happy writing!

© 2010 Linore Rose Burkard
The House in Grosvenor Square
Before the Seasons Ends
 The Country House Courtship


  1. And a great article. I didnt know that about the character driven point. Thanks

  2. Great post. I might add that when two characters are speaking to each other, dialogue tags can wait for whole paragraphs at a time, especially if the lines are short. Only when an action is involved should they enter, but I've found sometimes the action with the person's name often replaces the tag.

    I usually try to vary my prose. Tag or no tag. That is the question.

    ~ VT

  3. Hi all, thanks for coming by. That poem is from around the turn of the (last) century, I believe, but it still applies to writing today, doesn't it, Pegg?

    Glad to have helped, Betty.

    And VT--ha! Yes that is. Thanks for the tip.

  4. Great post, Linore. You’re so right about striking that perfect balance. If we can tell by the action who’s talking, then no, there’s no reason for the attribution. If there could be doubt or confusion about who could be talking, then yes, throw one in. The last thing we want to do is leave our readers lost, confused or in the dark.

    On another note, sometimes the rhythm of the prose will call for a tag, even though we know who’s talking, etc. If the rhythm calls for it, then use it, but please allow me to encourage the writers here to use “said,” not some “fake” tag.

    Allow me to explain. For example, “he laughed” is not a true tag. It’s a form of “telling.” In fact, every so-called tag in the above list isn’t a true attribution; although, you might be able to get away with “spoke” and “called.” You can definitely use “muttered” as a tag. The rest are all forms of “telling” and create “impossibilities.” A person can’t “amend, defend, hasten, flare, smile, urge, plead, etc” a statement. The list above is far worse than what’s quoted in the list below, and Ludlum’s book (below) was ripped to shreds for using them (and what’s funny is “whispered” CAN be used as a proper attribution).

    Here's a quote from Newgate Callender, in The New York Times Book Review:

    Mr. (Robert) Ludlum has other peculiarities. For example, he hates the "he said" locution and avoids it as much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one especially unforgettable tautology: “‘I repeat,’ repeated Alex.”

    The book may sell in the billions, but it’s still junk.


    The best thing to do with tags is to cut them all together and replace them with an action. This will create more “showing” and less “telling.” It pulls us into the story and helps us become more acquainted with the characters. Besides, if one character has dialogue and action in the same paragraph, we’ll automatically know who’s talking so there’s no need for the tag (as Victor said, the “action” replaces the tag). But if you have to use a tag, then use “said” (again, sometimes the rhythm of the prose calls for it) and not some impossible attribution like the ones listed above.

    Have you guys ever heard of "Self-Editing for Fiction Writers" by Dave King and Rennie Browne? They go into great detail on the subject. I know Dave personally and I think he’d croak if he thought we were encouraging one another to replace said with “telling” or impossible verbs, not to mention calling the above list “legitimate” attributions/tags.

    Again, as Linore said, balance is important, clarity is important, as is rhythm. Just take care that when we apply those tags, that a proper attribution is used.

    Sandi Rog, editor

  5. Thanks so much for adding your tips to the trade, Sandi. And sharing with all the differences between showing and telling. Putting your thoughts with Linore's gives everyone a wonderful balance at how easy it is to correct misuse of attributions in writing.

    And thanks for the book suggestion!


  6. Thanks, Sandi. I can see you have given this subject some thought. I do have to confess that I don't mind, at times, mixing a little action with a tag--call it what you like, it can give clarity to how something is said. We all know that WHAT is spoken (or written) may not matter nearly as much as HOW it is spoken (or written). Therefore, I personally don't mind the use of "she demurred," or "he chuckled," as tags. What I do mind is when writers exaggerate by saying things like "he roared," when all that is called for is a light chuckle.

    I think, in all cases, no matter how we do it, or the ways in which we choose to get there, all of us (writers) are striving for precision. Precision in dialogue means truth in fiction--bringing authenticity and believability into the story. And this is always good.

    Sandi, thank you so much. What a gift you've given us by adding to the post this way.

  7. Thanks for the great tip. I love all I can get.
    Janice Ian