Last week, Eric over at Quantam wondered if the use of the dialogue tag “said” was dead. The example he chose was Isaac Asimov’s NAKED SUN. Asimov basically wrote the book without any dialogue tags at all. Eric noted that they weren’t missed.
Most how-to books on writing fiction will tell writers that they need to concentrate on the dialogue itself and forget the use of tags other than an unobtrusive ‘said’ or ‘replied.’ Dialogue tags tell the reader the emotion; the dialogue or the action surrounding it shows the reader the emotion. Show, not tell, the mantra of all good fiction.
The problem is, writers break this rule all the time and still manage to write compelling fiction. No less a writer than JK Rowling is known as the Queen of the Adverb, and the liberal sprinkling of them all through her books never slowed down her sales.
I have to confess that the use of dialogue tags tortures me. I’m doing the best I can to get along without them, but sometimes I really want to insert a ‘he blurted,’ or ‘she cried’. Lordy, I pray to the dialogue god, please help me figure out how to say this without resorting to the tag. Sometimes I let it stand. The tag just feels right; it either adds a missing beat or conveys what I want without having to resort to “the crooked brow".
I went back to some of the masters of the craft to see how they deal with tags. Here’s a sample from Elmore Leonard. Melly blogged about his rules of fiction writing just last week.
From THE HOT KID:
About his interview with Crystal Davidson the editor said, “Did Carl Webster ever tell you he was avenging the death of that tribal cop?”
“I only said they knew each other.”
“You mean alleged to have known each other.”
“And maybe,” Tony said, “it gave Carl a motive, made it easier for him to shoot the bank robber.”
Leonard never slips up. There will be no ‘cried’ ‘whispered’ ‘hissed’ in this book or in any other book of his. He gets along without them. If there’s an ambiguity, he lets the reader fill in the emotion.
Now here is an example from THRESHOLD, by multi-award winning Aussie fantasy writer Sara Douglass.
Kofte stood to one side, his face a mask of irritation that was rapidly turning into anger.
“The climb,” I stumbled, “and the excitement . . . ”
Terrified he was about to unleash his fury, I closed my eyes.
“Excellency!” Yaqob pleaded. “She is too valuable to lose, too skilled at the caging!”
“Then take her!” the Magus snapped. “And send Zeldon. But fast! I have not the entire day to waste.”
Douglass doesn’t worry about too many tags or even too many exclamation points. It works for her. I was riveted to her story from beginning to end.
My point: if it belongs to your voice and it’s the way you want to tell stories, then I think it’s ok to use dialogue tags, as long as they are kept under control. If writers slavishly followed all the so-called “rules of good fiction”, every book would sound the same.
And that would be the real shame.
(Did y’all catch how I broke the rule about not starting your sentences with ‘and’?)