1. Gammer
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    Gammer Active Member

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    Since when is using a tag other than "Said" bad?

    Discussion in 'General Writing' started by Gammer, Mar 15, 2010.

    I got a critique on this other site, and the guy just flipped his top every time I used a word other than "said" for my characters. Throughout the whole thing I kept thinking "since when is that such a big deal?" You'd think just saying said after every sentence of dialogue would get insanely repetitive. Espeically when the characters are shouting at each other and there are other stuff going around them.

    So the question stands is using tags other than said really that bad? or was that guy just a picky jerk?
     
  2. Dante Dases
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    Dante Dases Contributing Member Contributor

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    It does pay to keep the dialogue and the way it's portrayed as varied as possible, otherwise it would be dull and unimaginative. However, to use an alternative to 'said' after every utterance can seem like you're using a thesaurus to a large extent.

    Perhaps the best way to go about keeping it varied is to limit the amount you use said and its alternatives; rather than punctuating dialogue with statements of how something was spoken, use actions. Rather than:

    "It's not my business," he said. "Something like this needs to be taken to the manager."

    You should try:

    "It's not my business." He pressed fingertips together and peered over the rim of his glasses. "Something like this needs to be taken to the manager."

    The second tells us more about the character speaking, even if it's not much on its own. We learn mannerisms of the characters; we have emotions shown to us more than through simple statement.
     
  3. rainy
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    rainy Senior Member

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    I agree with Dante on this, but also should note to be careful and not give every sentence an action. Otherwise, your characters will appear to be doing a jig ;) The key is to keep things varied, but not difficult to follow.

    Said is a good tag because it "blends" into the sentence. Only a few other tags really have a great use, such as whispered. "Shouted" usually isn't necessary because of a well placed exclamation mark. Outside of that, it should be given that the character is still shouting.

    Not all dialogue needs a tag. If there's only two people talking, or who is saying what is very apparent, drop the tag all together. This should be used with great care. It can provide a nice flow to dialogue when done properly, and cause a great mess when not.

    Also try to avoid describing how things are said. No "said sadly" or "said angrily". It should be apparent by the context. And, if it's not, it's better to refer to Dante's comment and describe the action. Just like everything else in the story, the action should be moving it along.

    IMO.

    //R
     
  4. HeinleinFan
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    HeinleinFan Banned

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    First, off, the guy who did that may have been taking classic writers' advice a bit too far. However, it is also true that many beginning writers will use "said bookisms" when they shouldn't.

    A "said bookism" is when the writer decides that the dialogue doesn't speak for itself, and adds a dialogue tag that doesn't clarify at all, or which the writer is clumsily using to substitute for a physical action or movement, like smiling or frowning. As you can imagine, "I don't think you should go out so late," Megan frowned, is not a great sentence. If your dialogue looks like that a lot, readers might peg the author as an amateur.

    Examples:
    "I'll stab you in the face!" he said threateningly.
    "I'll kill you!" she threatened.
    "No, I don't think you're right at all," he argued.
    "But... I don't understand, how are you going to do that?" John questioned.
    "How do you get the texture right, when you paint like that?" Lisa asked curiously.
    "Oh God, I just lost my job and my house in the same day," Winona despaired.
    "I love tennis just so much!" Kellar ejaculated.
    "Ha! I have finally defeated the hero!" Villainous Carl gloated egotistically.

    You can see how "said" is much shorter, more invisible. Adverbs ending in -ly are easy enough to tack onto "said", but they're just as annoying (when overused) as the strong verbs can be.

    Note: every author has a different style. J.K. Rowling uses a lot of dialogue tags, but the dialogue is rich enough with movement and interesting subject matter and imagery that many people are fine with it.

    I tend to be more sparse; I rarely use -ly adverbs or strong verbs when my characters speak, because dammit, if you can't get the feel for a conversation using "said," then plainly I am writing poorly. I tend to think of "he shouted," "she threatened," "Mary exploded," "Grandfather advised" as crutches. Not everyone will agree with me, and that's fine - but I also think it's a good idea to learn how to write dialogue with as few of those "said bookisms" as possible, so that you can use them to enhance your story when you need extra emphasis.
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    In general, you should avoid variety in your tag verbs. Occasionally, you may need to convey more about a line of dialogue than who said it. In that case, it makes sense to select a stronger verb.

    However, the focus should usually be on the dialogue itself. You don't want the reader distracted by the packaging. Good dialogue exposes far more than the surface content of what is being said.

    Tags containing said virtually vanish for the reader, and that is usually a good thing. Granted, if you tag every line of dialogue, with the tag in the same position every time, it will intrude into the reader's awareness. Changing the verb will only worsen the intrusion.

    In a two person dialogue, there is no need to tag every line of dialogue. A new paragraph signifies a switch of speaker (usually - I won't go into the exceptions here), so you only need an occasional tag to make sure the reader doesn't get lost.

    With three or more speakers, you need to make it clear who speaks each line of dialogue, so you will need more tags. However, beats can be used instead of tags to bring focus to the speaker without an explicit tag:

    Not one dialogue tag, but it's clear who is saying what, and you can focus on each person's role in the conversation: Mike is the thinker, Tony is the driving force, and Ed is a follower.

    (Beats are small actions inserted into a dialogue. They modify the timing of the dialogue and provide a context for the dialogue. Beats aren't always the right solution, but they are a poweful tool for dialogue writing.)
     
  6. themistoclea
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    themistoclea Member

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    This is very true.

    I'd recommend to anyone who doubts it to test next time you're reading, your brain just skims over the word "said". Superfluous additions such as "angrily", "happily" etc., on the other hand, slow the writing down.
     
  7. Wreybies
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    Wreybies The Ops Pops Operations Manager Staff Contest Administrator Supporter Contributor

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    This is not a bad suggestion.

    I would go one even further.

    In a paperback that you are reading (NOT a library book or someone else's book) look for a page with some good amount of dialogue. Highlight the tags that are used.

    With an actual highlighter.

    This will serve to "un-disappear" the dialogue tags, because, as others have already mentioned, the brain glosses these words. Even when you are looking for them.


    Cogito has already pointed out to you one of my own personal favorite ways of circumventing the dialogue tag issue. Don't use any when not needed. Instead of a tag, a beat. Often it is perfectly clear who is speaking and you can jump directly to a description of what the person is doing during or after the speaking of the dialogue. No tag needed at all.
     
  8. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm guessing the person that did the critique read a piece a few years back that suggested that you should not use alternate tags because they tend to make the speech tag stand out and said is more 'innocuous' and 'invisible'. The truth is, as previously stated, most tags, of any sort, are generally unnecessary. This concept came about due to the fact that inexperienced writers fall into the habit of using adverbs and speech tags too much. On rare occasion, these stand out kind of tags can add to the scene but they must be used judiciously and quite sparingly. A scene filled with "... he screamed angrily" and "... she whimpered" and "... he laughed jokingly" and "... she snarled meanly" will become tedious and can effectively turn off your reader.

    If the speaker is clear without adding any kind of tag ... don't. And, as Cogito noted, if it is a two-person dialog it should be pretty clear who is speaking from one statement to the next. The only exception to that would be if this two-person dialog runs on for a particularly long period. In this case, you might want to add a tag 1) to break up the monotony of the dialog; and 2) to clarify/refresh the identity of the speaker.

    One case where you might find the need for a tag is when a new person is added to the mix.

    As far as how to judge if you've used too many tags or if you need one where it is not, use that old standby of reading out loud. When you read to yourself, you don't realize how often you skim over those tags. If you are diligently reading aloud, you will notice those tags and the overuse will stand out.
     
  9. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Particularly avoid speech tags that aren't actually speech verbs. You can make a good case sometimes for he grumbled, she whispered, or he shouted, but stay away from nonsense tags like she giggled, he barked, or she bubbled. Yes, she giggled makes a reasonable beat, but not a tag. And is she is bubbling, she may require medical attention.
     
  10. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    Worst is 'grinned', as in 'You're not such a bad guy,' she grinned.
    I always hate that, makes me picture a chimp.
     
  11. Banzai
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    Banzai One-time Mod, but on the road to recovery Contributor

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    Actually, the worst is one that JK Rowling used, in the sixth Harry Potter book.

    'Snape!' Slughorn ejaculated...

    The image is indescribable...
     
  12. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ugh!

    listen to cog... he's nailed it...
     
  13. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    If the character's dialogue needs to be described, describe it.

    "We have to get out of here," he whispered.
    "Get out of my way," she said, laughing.
    "Finders keepers, losers, weepers," he sang.

    If the dialogue doesn't make it obvious as to how it's being inflected, then you need a new tag to tell the audience how to read it. Otherwise, "said" is best, because it's quick and the reader will hop over it.
     
  14. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    It's difficult to form coherent words while laughing. She probably laughed before or after she spoke, so a beat would make better sense:
    Unless he literally put the phrase to music, this is a poor choice.
     
  15. B-Gas
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    B-Gas Contributing Member

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    That's precisely the point. He was singing it. You can't get that out of the dialogue itself. Thus, it belongs in the tag.
     
  16. arron89
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    arron89 Banned

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    I think you're oversimplifying things unnecessarily. Of course we know that she wasn't literally laughing out the words, and that he wasn't delivering an aria, but we know how to understand these images in a sensible way. It's not like you're going to be confused by either of those two sentences, or even less logical ones like the "ejaculated" example above. I'm not advocating the (over-/mis-)use of such tags, but let's not pretend they're difficult to understand or require a literal reading.
     
  17. madhoca
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    madhoca Contributing Member Contributor

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    You could try:
    "Finders keepers, losers, weepers," he said, in a childish sing-song.
     
  18. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    I use this when teaching about dialogue in Intro to Creative Writing:

    [​IMG]

    [​IMG]
    (GERROLD)

    I think it sums the whole "said" thing up pretty well, and it's funny.

    "he/she said" tags become invisible over time anyway. You're drawing more and more attention to syntax and drawing it away from the story/characterization, imho. I think it's great to toss in a few creative dialogue tags from time to time, but for the most part, I think weaving in action and keeping things simple is the best way to point the reader's attention to what's being said (and the subtext within) than it is on something else.

    Just my two cents, though. Besides, if you think about it, try chuckling and snorting at the same time you're talking. "Really?" he snorted. Logistically speaking, it's kinda hard to do. :)

    CITED WORKS

    Gerrold, David. Worlds of wonder. Writers Digest Books, 2001. Print.
     
  19. garmar69
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    garmar69 Contributing Member Contributor

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    The books I've enjoyed the most were the ones where the writer never used a dialogue tag if it was clear who was speaking.

    My opinion on the practice of using tags, other than "said" to indicate who was talking, is that it's the amateur's way to get out of the hard work of writing compelling prose.
     
  20. callmeSteve
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    callmeSteve New Member

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    Something that hasn't come up in this discussion is the use of the dialogue itself to show who is speaking. I was once told by a mentor that "grammar is the tool of a writer, not the rules by which the author must follow." While this is not always true, it is especially useful in dialogue. How many people do you converse with on a regular basis that pronounce the "g" in "ing?" How do they say their words? What does their anunciation sound like? With dialogue, focus on representing the anunciation rather than the actual words. Not to the point that it confuses the reader, but so that it allows the reader to infer certain aspects of the character's background and identity. Slang, words running together, they are all tools in a dialogue arsenal.
     
  21. KP Williams
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    KP Williams Contributing Member

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    I'm personally not a fan of that. I'm not exactly an expert on Grammar from Hell, so when I see some bizarre collection of letters and random punctuation marks that I'm sure isn't a real word, I start to wonder just what the heck is going on. And I can't exactly ask the character what it means, so I have three choices: figure it out through context, seek help, or pretend I never even saw it. And spelling out characters' words the way they pronounce them is just a horrible idea...

    All those problems could have been avoided if the author had just spelled things out the human way and left the pronunciation to my imagination. Give me a few hints as to how he speaks; I can take it from there. Sure, I can understand saying somethin' and whatnot, but seeing it for every -ing word just makes my IQ drop. And I never, ever want to see a character say "Oh m'Gaw, wha's hap'n?" or any of that sentence's ugly cousins.

    If the dialogue is what tells you who is speaking, then I say give the character a distinctive way of stringing words together. Make him begin all of his sentences with "absolutely," or something. Just don't try to force me to read your character in a certain voice.
     
  22. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    Enunciation (sic) refers to more than the phonetics of the speech. In truth, though, trying to reproduce the phonetics is usually a bad idea, unless used very conservatively. However, dialect and idiosyncratic phrasing is a valuable characterization tool. Still, I wouldn't depend on it to replace tags, in most cases.

    It is true that the content of the dialog element is often sufficient to identify the speaker. If you're writing a dialogue between three classmates whispering during an exam, you don't need a dialogue tag to identify the following speaker:

    "Dean. Josef. Shirley. Drop your test booklets on my desk and report to the principal's office."
     
  23. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ms myth...
    since you're not david gerrold, you've committed a mortal sin by posting work that isn't your own, without proper citation... better add it quick, before our plagiarism police come down on you!

    hugs, m
     
  24. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Oh my! What a lovely image. Like she just melted down in the heat of summer and then it just got even hotter and ... and ... she started bubbling. :D
     
  25. MsMyth71
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    MsMyth71 Senior Member

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    Haha, didn't realize we had to cite on here. I'm very proud of Gerrold's book! It's wonderful stuff. I would recommend his book to any beginning writer.
     

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