Dialogue tags and adverbs: frequency and variety
In the realm of the novel, I worship at the altar of E.M. Forster, author of Howards End, the greatest work of literary fiction ever written in the English language.
It's a debatable claim, but I'm personally more than satisfied to treat Howards End as a perfect specimen of the realist, non-experimental, and (more or less) contemporary novel. The remarkable but uneven strengths of masters such as Dickens, George Elliot, Henry James, Woolf, and others are drawn together, balanced, distilled, modernized, and effortlessly harnessed by Forster. Which is why I keep returning to his best novel to learn various lessons about the art of fiction.
I recently completed a simple study and wanted to share the results. I asked myself the following questions:
1) In Howards End, how often does Forster tag his dialogue with direct attribution, in the manner of "he said" or other descriptive tags (like for example, "he exclaimed,") as opposed to leaving tags out or using gestures to frame speech?
2) And when he tags dialogue directly, how often does he use descriptive tags that are other than "said" -- such as "proclaimed," "observed," and so on?
3) What are all of the descriptive dialogue tags that he uses in the novel, apart from "said?"
4) How often does Forster use adverbs to modify the tag "said" or its alternates, and what are the adverbs he uses?
I asked these questions to get a clear idea of the frequency and variety of descriptive dialogue tags and adverbs that my idol uses in his greatest work when crafting dramatic scenes. I am aware that there exist general guidelines and bits of wisdom that advise new writers to mostly stick to "said" when attributing dialogue, and to minimize the use of adverbs that modify "said." So how does Forster's writing behave in relation to these rules of thumb?
The results are as follows:
1) According to my estimate, in Howards End, Forster tags dialogue with direct attributions (like "he said" or "she cried") in his dramatic scenes about thirty-five percent of the time. The rest of the speech that appears in his scenes is either not tagged, or is associated with gestures and other pieces of narration that frame and direct it.
2) When he does tag his dialogue directly, he uses "said" about seventy percent of the time. Which obviously means that he uses alternative tags only thirty percent of the time throughout the novel.
3) I catalogued all of the dialogue tags he uses that are alternatives to "said" and will list them here, as a kind of reference:
- exploded with
- blazed out
- came x’s voice
- put in
- burst from
- went on
4) Forster uses adverbs to modify "said" and its alternatives ("whispered," "muttered," etc.) very infrequently, about five to ten percent of the time. A list of the adverbs follows:
By and large, Forster seems to adhere to the principles that are generally handed to beginning writers: when attributing dialogue directly, use "said" most of the time, and use adverbs to modify "said" (and its kin) sporadically or not at all.
It is also interesting to note that Forster does not tag his dialogue directly sixty-five percent of the time in his dramatic scenes. Instead, he employs narration, gestures, or just an absence of tags to control the situational framework and the pacing of conversations and exchanges between characters.
Finally, most of the alternative tags he selects when not using "said" are, in my view, somehow on the neutral side. Tags like "observed," "exclaimed," "protested," and "retorted" break up the monotony of "said" without being jarring or extreme. They are hardly more than classifications of different registers and modalities of human speech: the retort, the observation, the protest, the exclamation.
You need to be logged in to comment