WriterDrome: “I repeat,” repeated Alex.

WriterDrome is a monthly ongoing discussion concerning the mechanics and logistics of writing Horror, Speculative, Dark Fantastic, and Noir Fiction. The aim here is to discuss the many dynamics necessary to write, edit and publish these genres in a continuously changing landscape. Remember, opinions mentioned here are just that, opinions. I’m no expert, but I’ve been writing for a long time, and I feel there is a lot I can pass on to my fellow writers. Lively discussion is highly encouraged. 

Photo property of Bob Pastorella. Blood provided by Bob Pastorella’s finger.

 WriterDrome: “I repeat,” repeated Alex. Dialogue Part II


Care to take a guess where I’m going with this article? 

That’s right, I’m covering Dialogue Tags. This is one of my favorite subjects, one of the few where I get to rant. I’ll try to be brief with the ranting. Many years ago when I started writing, I didn’t know squat about writing dialogue. I knew my characters needed to be talking, so talk they did, usually very poorly and more often than not they didn’t have anything to say about the story. This was before I learned that dialogue is used to advance the plot. All I knew was talking was needed. When I decided to get serious about my craft, I read a few books about how to write fiction. I couldn’t wait to get to the chapter(s) about dialogue, hoping to learn more tags like chortled, gasped, exclaimed. I needed more words like that to help make sure my readers understood what my characters were feeling when they talked in my stories. Imagine my dismay when the first book forcefully instructed me to only use the word ‘said’. 


How boring. The next book I read about writing also told me I needed to use ‘said’, but this time, the author explained why ‘said’ is so important, and it sunk in. Sunk in deep. Now when I see any tag other than ‘said’, the red pen strikes it out like it’s a cancer. Said is the best tag. If you think of a better tag than said, use said anyway, it’s still better. 

Crude Example:

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John whined.

“Tell me now, dammit!” Dave screamed.

First, using ‘asked’ as a tag is permissible when a character is asking a question. Second, we have to look for ways to make this crude example better. Will simply changing ‘whined’ and ‘screamed’ to ‘said’ fix it? No, we need more than that. We must understand why the writer chose those tags to begin with.

John whined is an effort to make the reader understand how John is feeling. We have a bit of dialogue–I don’t know what you’re talking about–the showing part of the exchange, and John whined, the telling part. The writer is using the telling part of the exchange to give us an idea of how John is feeling, when it would have been much easier, and stronger, to do that in the showing part. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

“Tell me now, dammit!” Dave screamed.

See how those few words give us a little insight into John. This exchange is almost done. The last thing is the last sentence, especially the exclamation point. It’s rare when a writer uses an exclamation point properly, so unless you know what you are doing, do not use that form of punctuation in your fiction. So how do we tell the reader that Dave is angry?

We don’t.

We show the reader.

Now, I do not advocate using swear words or slang simply because they can become repetitive and annoying, but if your character’s language has been fairly clean for the most part, a well placed ‘motherfucker’ can work wonders. Use it sparingly.

Another way would be to carefully choose the words Dave is screaming, so that the reader knows he angry without telling him that Dave is angry. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

“You had better tell me right now, dammit,” Dave said. 

This is better, proper, but it’s still not strong. Okay, okay, I can hear you all groaning …Well, Bob, since we can only used ‘asked’ or ‘said’ what do we do now?

Physical tags. Not only will they indicate who is speaking, but the action allows you to show the reader your character’s feelings. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

“I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about,” John said.

Dave grabbed at John’s arm, missed it, then clinched his fist. “You had better tell me right now, dammit.”  

Not too bad for a crude example. We can use physical tags for the entire exchange, but it’s best to mix things up. 

“Where’s the money?” Dave asked. 

 John squirmed in his chair. “I’ve already told you, I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Dave grabbed at John’s arm, missed it, then clinched his fist. “You had better tell me right now, dammit.”  

Now we have a nice dialogue exchange without a single said. So why is ‘said’ better than saying something like ‘groaned’, or ‘gasped’. The reason is because ‘said’ is invisible. It works because it identifies who is speaking without bringing attention to itself, therefore allowing the words you chose for your characters to do the job they need to do, which is advancing the plot. 

Damn, I love it when my lessons start making connections. 

So when in doubt, always use ‘said’, it is truly the best choice for a tag. Chose your dialogue words wisely, and if you must relay more emotion into the exchange, use a physical tag to get your idea across. 

Next month is the final part of my Dialogue lesson, in which I’ll cover slang and cursing, foreign words and dialects, and how not to sound like a redneck when writing redneck. 


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