Monday, May 14, 2012

Abused Dialog Tags

Copyright © 2012, Steven E. Houchin. All rights reserved.

I recently read a short article about ways that many newbie novelists abuse dialog tags. For example:

“I’m so glad you’re here!” she smiled. -- (You don’t smile words.)
“Hell is too good for you!” he scowled. -- (You don’t scowl words.)
“You’ve got to be kidding,” he laughed. -- (You don’t laugh words.)
“I just saw a rat!” she shrieked. -- (You can shriek words, but there's a better way to say this.)

Here are alternatives to the examples above:

“I’m so glad you’re here!” She beamed a sweet smile that seemed completely genuine.
“Hell is too good for you!” His brow furrowed into a deep scowl.
He let out a terse chuckle. “You’ve got to be kidding.”
She let out a shriek and pointed to the corner. “A rat!”

Some argue that the only tags you need are ‘said’ and ‘asked.’ The reader’s eyes just skip over these tags, and thus do not distract from the actual dialog. While I am sympathetic to this view, and generally agree, I believe other tags are also appropriate, if used sparingly. For example, it seems reasonable to tell the reader that the speaker muttered, whispered, yelled, cried [out], or snapped. I also sometimes use ‘responded’ and ‘commented’ when it appears the lines of dialog are peppered with too much of said, said, said in a row.

Of course, the deaded adverb often intrudes into dialog tags, giving an impression of over-the-top writing by the author. For example:

“I didn’t really notice,” he said evasively.
“You’re such a bitch!” she said angrily.
“What would I ever do without you?” she responded adoringly.

Consider the alternatives to the above:

He averted his gaze. “I didn’t really notice.”
She bared her teeth and leaned close. “You’re such a bitch!”
“What would I ever do without you?” She tilted her head and gave an adorable smile.

Note that, in all of the alternative lines I’ve composed above, the dialog tags have completely disappeared. The speaker is inferred by the accompanying gesture or facial expression, and the reader is given a richer picture of the character’s emotions.

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