One of the fun things about writing is we can create entire new worlds, give birth to countless people, and do with them what we wish (unless our muse doesn’t like it, then we’re in trouble. 😛 lol).
With all that power comes great responsibility… Okay, so we’ve heard that one a hundred times. Here’s something I bet we’ve heard millions of times: Use said.
That one single, simple dialogue tag can have an affect few others do. It can inform us the character said something, stop readers like a punch to the nose, or be omitted and/or replaced by action.
The first one sounds obvious. Whenever we give a character dialogue, we’re to use dialogue tags. At least, that’s what we’re often taught early on in school.
Throughout grade school and junior high I was told to use said or asked after every dialogue I wrote. To me, it seemed repetitive and drove me crazy. I understand the thought process behind it as my teachers wanted to make sure we had all the same basics. It makes sense, just like if we build a car we’re not going to start by putting the body on an empty frame.
Mechanics are important, and having to learn to use dialogue tags helped me to focus more than I probably would have. Still, the thing that got me was having to read said or asked after every. Single. Dialogue. It hurt my love of writing by turning it into a mundane exercise since I used a lot of dialogue.
To help you understand me, I’d like to share my personal story with you. My dad taught me how to read by using comic books after I refused to cooperate with the school books (Even at that age I could only take so much of “Bill fell down the hole”). Because of that, most of my early stories were 99.99999% dialogue. It was what I knew, so it’s what I used.
The saving grace for me came in seventh grade when my teacher told us if we used more than one said or asked in a story we’d get a zero.
I seriously wanted to do a back flip and risk killing myself. It also meant I had to get creative, but more on that in a few.
As for using dialogue tags stopping us like a punch to the nose, that is something that’s far more preferential than a do or don’t, in my opinion.
As with everything, it depends on who we talk to and what their preferences are. For many, the words said or asked are transparent. They pass over them without a second thought. They are often considered punctuation and that allows them to be pushed aside.
There are plenty of blog posts and how-to-write books that’ll explain why it’s bad to use too many, but if it works for you go for it!
On the flip side, I can only speak for myself in that I hate using them. For me, they interrupt the flow of writing, and when listening to audio books it’s hard to hear them over and over, so you could say I’m in the “punch in the nose” train of thought. lol
Here’s where I had to get creative in seventh grade and learned I wasn’t the pioneer I thought I was. lol.
When writing or reading, I see the events in my head like a movie, so I started using a style using actions instead. (Imagine my irritation at learning I didn’t create it. Lol)
For me, it felt more natural to the what I saw in my head. Here’s a comparison of what I mean.
Using said: “I don’t know, Jesse. What are we going to do now?” asked Paul as he looked at her and ran a hand through his hair.
Using said at the end: “I don’t know, Jesse. What are we going to do now?” asked Paul.
Using action: “I don’t know, Jesse.” Paul ran his hand through his hair before looking at her. “What are we going to do now?”
While the difference is only a couple of words, that doesn’t mean one is better than the other. In the example using said, the action can be added before, between the two dialogue sentences, or afterwards.
For the second example, it can seem awkward by saying who spoke after the dialogue, especially if there are only two people and it’s the middle of the conversation. In this case, it’s wise for us to think if it’ll work better at the end, start the sentence with it, or even omit it. It can be a tough choice, and I often think of it in similar terms as deciding whether or not to keep a scene.
In the action, it can have a more natural feel and makes the image easier to visualize for some. One of the biggest downsides to it is using the same phrases multiple times. I’m guilty of having my characters smile, nod, shake their heads, and laugh, so I know this pain well. The best advice I can give is to make sure you’re aware of this and try to change it up or skip having them smile for a few lines. It’s an ongoing process, but isn’t everything? Lol
As with everything, our choices are determined by what we feel works best for our stories. Whichever style we choose, it’s important to have fun with it.
What do you like to do with dialogue tags? Are there any tricks or ideas I haven’t covered you’d like to share? As always, I’d love to hear your thought.
Until next time, let your imaginations fly!