When creating fiction, writers will inevitable have to learn how to write dialogue. I have never read a novel without it though I suppose one exists somewhere out there. One vital key to good dialogue is attributing the spoken words to the proper character, so readers instantly know who is saying them.
We do this by using dialogue tags: “The last time I heard this song by Charlie Rich,” Liam said, “you were young, adventurous and in love with me.”
The words Liam said is a direct dialogue tag. It tells the reader without fuss or doubt that Liam said those words inside those quotation marks.
Another method of informing readers of who said what is through an action by the character. This is technically not called a dialogue tag, but it does the same job.
For example: “This was my favourite show when I was a kid.” Judy grabbed the clicker and turned up the volume. “My brothers and I watched it every Saturday morning.”
Both these methods of indicating who said what are clean and non-distracting. Readers often won’t notice them, which means they won’t be nudged or jerked from the story, but will continue to read without interruption.
Bookism, the Silence Threat
Bookism is the term used when words other than said, asked and whispered are used in dialogue tags. Similar words that truly define a manner of speaking can be used sparingly: shouted, yelled, cried and screamed.
I think of the verbs—except for said—in dialogue tags as million-dollar words. In other words, if I have only 20 million to spend writing a hundred thousand-word novel, I can use these verbs only 20 times. Or I could think of it as using them once every 5,000 words.
Exaggerating the use of bookism produces this type of dialogue…
“Kris,” blurted Billy.
“Kristofferson?” questioned Freda.
“Is there any other?” he quipped.
“Not for Sunday Morning Coming Down,” she asserted.
“Or Me and Bobby McGee,” he shrieked.
“I could play it now,” she teased, holding up the 45.
“Oh, you must!” he hissed.
“It’ll cost you,” she grinned.
“I’ve got a dime,” remarked Billy.
“I’ll take a dollar,” demanded Freda.
“Sold,” he bellowed.
Although this was exaggerated, I have seen self-published novels with this type of dialogue. The authors put a lot of work into finding words to use instead of said, but it was unnecessary.
When reading bellowed, hissed and asserted, readers may pause for a fraction of a second to imagine the facial expressions or the emotions described by them. This reminds them they are reading a story and they become less consumed in the lives of the characters and more aware of their surroundings in real life. That’s not what my goal is when I write. I want readers so absorbed in the story, they forget about time, commitments, eating and where they are. I don’t always reach that goal, but it’s what I aim for.
Rewriting the above section using said or no dialogue tags at all might look like this…
“Kristofferson?” asked Freda.
“Is there any other?”
“Not for Sunday Morning Coming Down.”
“Or Me and Bobby McGee.”
“I could play it now.” She held up the 45.
“Oh, you must!”
“It’ll cost you.”
“I’ve got a dime,” said Billy.
“I’ll take a dollar.”
A character’s name should be mentioned only when it is unclear who is doing the talking or the action. Because the above conversation involved a male and a female, a she or a he can be inserted to confirm who was speaking.
If the conversation was between two men (or two women), mentioning one of their names after several lines will keep readers informed. One of the complaints I hear from readers when they encounter a full page of dialogue is they have to go back and see who was saying what because lines weren’t tagged properly. This harshly jerks readers out of the story and they may put down the book, remembering they have to cut the lawn.
Overworking Dialogue Tags
Obviously, dialogue tags shouldn’t do all the work. If they are, that means characters sound all the same, that there’s nothing about the manner in which they speak or what they say to distinguish them from one another.
In February 2016, I wrote a post—Giving Characters Their Distinct Voice—to shed light on how to make characters sound different.
Said is NOT Dead
Although you will hear teachers, writers and others claim, “Said is dead!” they are wrong. Said is alive and well; I just spoke to him last week. I wrote an off-the-cuff post about this in 2014. You can read it here: Said is Dead?
Why Has Bookism Become So Popular?
Blame it on the public school English teachers. I’ve talked to them about this, and their answer is always: We want students to broaden their vocabulary. My response to this is: Wouldn’t it be better to broaden their vocabulary by introducing stronger verbs rather than butchering dialogue tags and forcing those who want to become fiction writers to unlearn bookism?
I haven’t met a teacher yet who agreed with the idea.
Telling someone to search for words other than said to use as dialogue tags is the same as telling someone who is underweight to add pounds by eating chocolate bars and potatoes chips instead of fruits and vegetables. The goal might be reached, but the after effects might be harmful.
Is Doubt Clouding Your Thoughts?
If you doubt what I’ve written even in the slightest, check out the following posts, and then do your own research. I was enlightened to my bookism many years ago while reading an article in a writer’s magazine. That day, I tossed the sheet containing more than a hundred other ways to say said and never looked back.
Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II), a Writer’s Digest article
9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue by Joanna Penn
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