Here’s the old contrarian again, revving up to question yet another piece of Advice to Writers.
This time it’s “Avoid dialogue tags.” If you must use them, stick to “said” and (maybe) “asked.” Often, Elmore Leonard is cited as endorsing this practice. Leonard wrote Westerns, gritty crime fiction, and thrillers. His prose style was crafted for those genres, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best style for all writing. And I’ve read that his essay, “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing,” may have been somewhat tongue in cheek.
Using only “said” and “asked” is recommended because these words are non-distinctive and do not call attention to themselves, because that would distract the reader.
As with so many of these dictums (well, it should be “dicta,” but let’s not be pedantic), there’s a good deal of wiggle room. First of all, dialogue tags are needed when a conversation between two (and especially more than two) characters goes on for more than a few lines. How many readers have had to scrutinize a page of dialogue, labelling sentences as “he” and “she,” or “Bob” and “Tom” to figure out exactly who said what, because the writer omitted dialogue tags altogether? Talk about being distracted from the story!
Writers are also advised to use strong verbs for actions. “Sprinted,” for example, is preferred to a weak, wimpy word like “ran” to describe what a character does. Dialogue tags are verbs and speaking is an action, so why is it good when a character sprints or ambles, but bad when they bellow or shriek?
And no, I don’t advocate words such as “smiled” or “laughed” as dialogue tags. I agree they’re not appropriate because they do not describe ways of articulating words. But many strong verbs do just that.
“Bellowed,” “shrieked,” “muttered,” and “murmured” can show how a character utters something, when “said” would be too bland. Like spices, these words are most effective sprinkled sparingly throughout a piece of writing, but they’re no less valuable than other strong verbs. (Come to that, strong verbs can be overdone. I’ve read books stuffed with so many picturesque verbs that I’ve almost lost track of the story while bedazzled by the author’s verbal gymnastics.)
In both dialogue and action, sometimes you need a memorable, splashy verb, and sometimes a plain and common one. Recognizing these situations is part of learning how to write well.
Words are a writer’s tools. Learning to write is all about selecting the most effective words and combining them artfully. I will always question advice that puts certain words or classes of words into a verbal jail with “Do Not Use” on the door.
(Hops off soapbox.)
Does anyone else think this “rule” is a contradiction? Do you mostly stick to “said” or avoid dialogue tags altogether, or do you sometimes slip in another word of utterance?
Image by Mary Pahlke from Pixabay