Thursday, May 16, 2013

I Scream, You Scream. Ice Cream?

by Allison Pang

I'm probably the worst person to talk to about dialogue tags. (Or beats, if you want to get technical.) My first drafts are full of them. And not the basic "said" either. No...I've got mutters and murmurs and adviseds, agreeds and snorts. Most of the time it's the equivalent of verbal poo. (And completely allowable on the early drafts.)

But once I've finished a draft, I definitely make it a mission to squash a lot of the extra dialogue tags.  (Though I admit I've got a passing fondness for mutter.)

Since I tend to write most of my books in 1st person, I really try to temper the "I said" thing. Many people who don't like books in 1st have mentioned it's the constant "I did x" or "I went y" that bothers them the most, so I do my best to keep that in check. There's not much point in adding to that total with additional "I said."

However, one thing I rarely do is a simple "he said" type of tag. It's almost always attached to some form of action = "Blah blah blah," he said, throwing the book onto the table.

But even that usually gets pared down later on. "Blah blah blah." He threw the book onto the table.

(Hopefully it would be more dynamic than that, but you get the point. Both work okay, but I think it makes for a cleaner manuscript if there's some variation.)

And then there's adverbs. I know it's bad manners to use adverbs for dialogue tags. It's considered telling over showing - and for the most part, I agree.

"I hate you," he said angrily. 

Meh. That's actually one instance I might choose something else than said - "I hate you," he snapped. But when writing emotions with a lot of punch - anger, passion, sadness...there are so many better ways to display that than just to tell the reader how a character feels.

Crimson flooded his cheeks and he ground his teacup on the table until it shattered. "I hate you."

On the other hand, sometimes adverbs can help give a little nudge into the right mood where you don't need a huge pile of description.

"I know what you mean," he said gently.  vs  "I know what you mean," he said coldly. Each can work depending on the situation. But don't go overboard and describe the tone of *every* sentence either. You can also change it up a little: "I know what you mean," he said, his voice gentle.  (It's probably personal preference as to what works best for you.)

Stay away from crap like:

"I love you," he said lovingly.
"Oh my GOD!" she screamed excitedly.

It's extremely grating to read, on several levels. Otherwise, YMMV.  :)


  1. I have a more than passing fondness for "he murmured." Even so, I use it selectively. The selective use gives them punch when they do show up. Either way, dialogue tags/beats tend to be a touchy and subjective topic. Which I find entertaining, but then I'm a wee bit twisted. ;-)

  2. Nice examples Allison!

    Verbal poo made me smile, and YMMV made me go to Google.