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Dialogue Tags–Verbs You Shouldn’t Use?

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

69 comments

  1. Sf writer John Scalzi weaves wonderful plots and paints interesting scenarios, then has dialogue which reads:
    ‘…………’ he said
    ‘………..’ she said
    ‘…………’ he said
    And so on. How he gets away with it I can only put down to his plots and scenarios, as his ‘he said/she said’ drove me to distraction, so i don’t read his books anymore.

    As for ‘rules’ of writing I simply don’t buy into the notion.
    There is always the question as to ‘for what purpose’ is the writing using these. If the work is one of humour, parody or satire then you can forget worrying about them as the writer may be doing this deliberately and there may be a ‘punch line’ on the subject.

    Another problem with ‘rules’ is that they can be a distraction in that the writer is so worried about breaking any their narrative suffers. True we can notice we’re over-using one word and go back to break up the use, but worrying about the ‘this’ and ‘that’ ties up a writer is unnecessary knots. As you point out Audrey some authors are so intent on ‘colourful’ words that the plot gets subsumed in a display of linguist ‘gymnastics’ (love that use).

    All these ‘rules’ tend to over look two basics:
    Plot.
    Characters.
    If a writer has crafted the strong and interesting in both areas they can get away with anything, even if they do drive a few readers, reviewers or critics to distraction.

    And all the rest is down to one one ‘Marketing’

    Liked by 4 people

    1. You make some good points, here, Roger. Good writing is finding a balance–not too much of anything, and definitely an engaging plot and characters. I especially agree with what you say about writers just starting out getting tied into knots by trying to follow rules.
      Marketing–now that’s a totally different thing than writing, and I profess no expertise there at all.
      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. 👨‍🎓 Learn something every day ❗️ Thanks for sharing this 😉 My ‘D’ average K-12 education barely taught me the difference between a noun or verb however 50 yrs after graduation I am still learning not to use so many profane adjectives 😉 The US Navy ⚓️ did not help my vocabulary n̶o̶n̶e̶ 🙂

    Liked by 4 people

  3. I try to avoid dialog tags, if I can, by pairing what the character is saying with an action. If I need to use dialog tags to clearly identify who is speaking, I stick with “said,” unless the character is muttering, murmering, screaming, etc. Then I say, she muttered, murmered, screamed, etc. I find that a good way to test whether my dialog tags are distracting is to read the story or chapter out loud.

    Liked by 5 people

    1. Yes, adding an action is a great substitute for dialogue tags. And a little muttering or screeching is good, but it’s easy to go overboard with non-standard dialogue tags. Better too few than too many, I admit. I like your idea of reading out loud. I’ve used Word’s speech capability at times. Even a robot-like voice reading my stuff can show some problems.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. I try to avoid dialogue tags too. And I read everything aloud multiple times. Then, days or months later, when I think I’ve got something I read it aloud to my dachshund. If he thumps his tail then I’ll read it aloud to my wife. You may think I’m kidding… but I’m not.

      Liked by 2 people

        1. I recommend reading to dogs: watch their ears, eyebrows and tail. They respond to your voice and your excitement, tension, boredom etc. It helps me know, in a non-content dependent way, what parts of my work are pleasant rhythms. And where the boring skip-over parts are. As a human I get hung up on content and meaning…the dog listens to the musicality, the rhythms of a work. This reading-to-dogs concept is related to how a dog knows that you’re upset even though they don’t know what you’re upset about.

          Liked by 1 person

        1. Yes! If both dog and wife like it then it’s good enough to show a Gallery, send to client, post online, submit somewhere for consideration or to self-publish etc…❤ Yes, dachshund has very reliable instincts about things. I call him my “art studio supervisor”… as in “i must consult with the supervisor before…” 🤣 My tabby cat also supervises in the studio but he is more focused on HR; making sure we have meals, take breaks, have a good work/life (ahem) balance 😉

          Liked by 2 people

          1. Hmm, I wonder if this means that all those times my husband and I were cooling our heels in the auto showroom while the salesman went to “talk to my manager,” he was really consulting with a dachshund. It gives one pause . . .

            Liked by 1 person

            1. Yes, it does give one pause. Or perhaps depending on your perspective it gives one paws.

              I have suspected that we humans are just being allowed to think we’re special because of our clever use of verbal and written language when in reality the animals, plants minerals etc natural elements are truly in charge…managing things.

              Liked by 2 people

  4. I was reading an older story, something from the 1950s, which was FULL of “he murmured” and such. It was distracting in that there were few times when “said” was used. It looked weird on the page and sounded weird in my head as I read it.

    I think Liz Gauffreau’s technique of using a character’s actions works well, and I also think “said” disappears in dialogue for quick, easy reading. Then, when a few whispers and shouts come along, they add lovely variety and strengthen the emotional aspect of the story.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. That’s it exactly, Priscilla–using the colourful words sparingly and in the right places. I actually think that applies to verbs in general, not just as dialogue tags. Once a reader starts noticing the writing instead of the story, it’s game over. (Of course we writers are more apt to do that.)

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Total agreement here! And let me emphasize how much it annoys me when there is a long sequence of dialogue and I lose track of who is speaking. No fun when you have to back up and find the start and then go through the “first Mary said” and “then John said” and then Mary said … oh, yeah, it’s John who is speaking now.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. Completely agree with everything you say here. At like a 125% level. Going beyond “asked” and “said” allows the writer to easily add a bit of context to the dialogue. How can that be wrong? I tend to get bored with dialogue that only uses “asked” and “said.”

    Liked by 1 person

  7. And there’s the disembodied voices, computer AI, spirits, alter-egos, gods and demons that speak without bodies. They can’t waltz into a room and announce their discontent or plop onto a couch disillusioned. Their voice is all we know and with it they must convey emotion through their words, but intonation and delivery which can only be done with words beyond said and asked.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. Well, in the chapter I went over this morning, I found that I had used, said, allowed, asked, parroted, replied, and added.

    I remember “Tom Swifties,” i.e. “I hate math,” Tom added. “I hear a brook,” Tom babbled. “We can’t let the fire die out,” Tom bellowed. So I keep tags to a minimum. I’ll put a short action sentence before a quote every so often in long tagless exchanges, i.e. She shrugged. ‘Whatever you think sounds best, go with it.’ so readers don’t get lost.

    But in the end, as Duke Ellington said, “If it sounds good, it is good.” So I have no rules as either a writer or a reader.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I love Tom Swifties! Not unintended ones, of course; I hope I don’t find any in my own writing, but the ones you quote here gave me a giggle.
      Adding those actions is a good way to avoid dialogue tags. Doing that, combined with the standard tags plus the occasional splashy one is a good approach.
      And I won’t argue with Duke Ellington!
      Thanks for contributing your thoughts, Chuck!

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Hi Audrey, I must admit I’m with those who favour a plain “he said, she said.” But I’ll also preface key lines with some action that implies a tone of voice. For me it scans better, and you get the mood before the line is spoken, rather than after.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I agree with all of your points in this post, Audrey. I find it comical that some writing rules appear to be fixed with no wiggle room while others evolve to the point where authors have the freedom to do as they damned well, please. I understand the idea of using “said” and “asked” primarily, but there are plenty of times when a more distinctive verb works better for me.

    Finding the right balance of tag usage is important. It’s distracting when they’re used too often or not enough.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Yes, balance is the key. And that’s a good point about “rules” that don’t apply once you’ve attainted a certain eminence. It proves that they’re not rules at all, but guidelines. Thanks for your thoughts, Pete.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. I think you and I are totally in agreement, Audrey. I use action to indicate speakers as much as I can, but “said” is quick when I don’t want to weigh down a conversation. And of course I sprinkle in a little whispering, muttering, shouting, and snapping. In small amounts, they can be just the right words. (I find that “said said said said said said said” can set up an annoying and distracting rhythm).

    Liked by 3 people

  12. High Five, Audrey. I’m another rule-breaker. Most of the time I’ll use ‘said’, but sometimes the context just cries out for something more evocative. As I always give each character’s dialogue a new line, I’ll sometimes omit the ‘said’ when it’s obvious that there’s a back and forth going on. As soon as there’s any doubt as to the speaker, back goes the ‘said’.

    As a non-north American, I have no idea who Elmore Leonard is or was, or why his opinion should count for so much. As far as I’m concerned, if something exists in the English language, it should be used. Where and how much is up to the writer.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Elmore Leonard’s essay “Elmore Leonard’s Ten Rules of Writing” first appeared in the New York Times in 2001. Since then, these rules have been picked up and shared widely.
      They should probably be called guidelines instead of rules.
      Your approach to dialogue tags makes sense to me–different ways of dealing with who says what, depending on the situation.

      Liked by 2 people

      1. Mmm…Just looked him up on Wiki. Haven’t read or even heard of a single one of his books. Have never watched any of the film adaptations either. I was imagining someone like Hemingway or Steinbeck. Why did/does Elmore Leonard’s advice carry such weight???

        Liked by 2 people

        1. I think it went viral–“10 Rules of Writing” probably appealed to writers, even if they didn’t know who Leonard was. I’ve never read anything by him either, or seen the movies. But then I’m not a big fan of the rules either. 😉

          Liked by 2 people

  13. Good point about strong verbs for action, why not for talking action. It’s easy for the writer to forget that while they know exactly who is talking, the poor reader won’t. Deciding how to set out dialogue is harder than jotting down the characters’ words – the characters have already told us what they want to say.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. I think it’s a balance. I don’t mind an occasional speaking verb (muttered, whispered, etc)—I think it is different from active action verbs, though, because in theory, one’s dialogue should in most cases already make it clear what tone/attitude is needed.

    “Watch out, Amy!” may not need the verb “screamed” or “shouted” if we already understand the intensity of the moment—the “shouted” in this case, would feel a bit redundant to me. The biggest pet peeve as a reader regarding dialogue tags is when the dialogue doesn’t imply the tone (“What’s up, Jean?” screamed Nick.)—particularly as I now read out loud for my sons! Nothing like having to backtrack to fix the tone of the character’s voice!

    Then again, I’m not going to throw a book across the room if an author uses it (sparingly). Now in a short story where every single word should be worth it’s weight?—I’d probably cut it for brevity.

    And I agree with an earlier commenter who mentioned “said” feeling redundant at time, too! Too many “saids” also draw attention and aren’t nearly as invisible as writers sometimes suggest!

    Interesting stuff to think about, though!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It is irritating when a dialogue tag is wildly inappropriate, as in your example. I’ve seen those, and suspect they may be behind the advice to stick to “said.” And if you have an exclamation point (also frowned upon by some), you don’t need “screamed.” One or the other but not both. Colourful words are like spices; moderation is the key.
      I’m glad this post gave your something to think about, and thanks for your comments (and the follow too!)

      Liked by 2 people

  15. I’d be happy as a reader with ‘said Barbara’, ‘said Terry’ at the start of a two way conversation, followed by (B), (T), but that may just be a peculiarity. I recently read Lincoln in the Bardo and liked the way of indicating who had said what – the full name in a smaller font under the paragraph for the main characters, or name plus a reference for people quoted or for invented quotes. I found myself ignoring the references and skimming for the names. It is interesting how much is convention.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Rules are meant to be bent (and sometimes broken); if we use them rigidly, they stop making sense. “Said” and “asked” are so neutral that we don’t notice them. Unless they’re overused, in sentence after sentence, with no other attempts to identify the speakers. I like when the dialogue tags are balanced with actions, although it requires some skill; otherwise the dialog can sound choppy. And I don’t think it’s wrong to use more expressive verbs in dialog tags every now and then.
    Robert Ludlum is (was) notorious for using everything but “said”, and was criticized for that. (“I repeat,” repeated Alex in The Bourne Ultimatum). Yet, he was a good and successful storyteller. J. K. Rowling uses a whole assortment of dialog tags, which didn’t stop me, and millions of others, to read her books.
    A good editor should alert a writer about the use and misuse of dialog tags. It’s their job; they often make such rules, after all. But in the end, I absolutely agree with determineddespitewp – all what matters is the story: plot, characters, setting, writing style. Everything else is just makeup.

    Liked by 2 people

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