The Art of Dialog Tags

How do we know that literature is an art form? By the way people proffer rules that don’t really exist — by the fact that opinions are often mistaken for rules and dished out as such. I was organizing my bookmarks today and came across an article I’d saved declaring there are only two correct dialog tags: “said” and “asked”. That’s it. Period.

This is not the first time I’ve seen authors and editors claim this as a rule for the English language or creative writing, but the diatribe that followed explaining why these are the only two acceptable dialog tags made me shake my head … which is probably why I bookmarked it to comment on later.

If you’re writing for a newspaper, or some other non-fiction source, certainly expressive language needs to be toned down or left out completely. But I honestly don’t think any of the novels I own stick to this rule. In fact, when I did a search for “dialog tag images”, dozens of word lists popped up on creative writing and English education sites.

I am in the “only ‘said’ is boring” camp if it comes to a vote. I prefer expression and variation to dialog. I believe how something is spoken can mean a world of difference in how something is interpreted by the reader, so if I want the reader to know exactly what I’m seeing or hearing in my head, I will convey it more precisely.

“You’re horrible,” she said.
“You’re horrible,” she cried.

The two examples above give me vastly different pictures. Sure, I could stick “… she said, crying,” onto the first one, but that adds an extra word. And why use two words when one will do? (I just spent an extra month cutting over 25,000 words from my manuscript, so, yes, it matters.) Also, look at the difference in tone. The first one strikes me as being a calm, almost flat, emotionless statement. The second lends itself more to being interpreted as the speaker being an emotional mess. Things like that matter, too, because if the difference isn’t precise, I could mistake something very sincere for something very snarky. (Kinda like the Internet without emoticons, amIright?) 😉

There is more to knowing when to do dialog tags and when it’s best to leave them out. But that’s another topic for another blog. The point here is that there is no official rule. This is not the dividing line between professional work and amateur work that many said-only proponents make it out to be. Like many other things in the publishing industry, it’s up to the author and publisher to determine the end product. In fact, if there is one hard-and-fast rule in English publications, it’s that the final decision comes down to the author and publisher.

What we can all agree on, I think, is that action mistaken for dialog tags is a no-no. I once read some advice that said if you can’t do it with words, it’s not a dialog tag; it’s action.

So, I can say, shout, cry, scream, whisper, speak, and continue words. I can even sing words. And I can greet with, tell with, and boast with words. But it makes less sense to walk, laugh, sit, grin, or do some other form of physical action by using words. I can walk at the same time that I’m using words, but I can’t use words to walk. I can grin and use words, but I can’t use words to grin. I can, however, use words to cry, sing, greet, or tell someone something. That, imo, is a better guideline.

That’s what it boils down to in literature, as with all arts — opinions.

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