Dialogue Tag Verbs and Adverbs
Why do so many writers hate the word “said”in a dialogue tag?
I wondered this for a long time. When I was in Grade 5—introverted, writerly being that I was—my teacher tasked me with the job of writing as many words as I could think of that could replace the word “said” in a dialogue tag. I scoured my brain and dictionary for worthy replacements. I filled an entire easel pad page with alternatives, both mundane and unusual—everything from “yelled” to “ululated.”
When I wrote dialogue after that, it was filled with an absurd amount of flowery verbs and adverbs, and the question plagued me: What’s so wrong with “she said,” / “he said,” anyway?
Writers seem to have very divided views when it comes to dialogue tags; either stick with “said” (and “never add an adverb”), or accept that “said is dead” and choose an alternative from a long list of synonyms. While no singular rule applies to all writers, current popular opinion seems to lean towards the basic said-is-positive-and-adverbs-suck side of the fence.
I eventually found a writer whose views on dialogue tags reflected my own—a writer who seems to be becoming a regular on the JEC Blog: Stephen King. King is a notable enemy of the adverb. In his book On Writing, he famously stated, “while to write adverbs is human, to write ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ is divine.” While he admits that he has used adverbs in excess, he says it was only because he was “afraid the reader [wouldn’t] understand [him]” if he didn’t. For example, consider this quote from his 1986 novel It:
“They float,” the thing in the drain crooned in a clotted, chuckling voice.
“Crooned,” “clotted,” and “chuckling voice”? Jeez, that’s a lot of added description—the very thing King is advising against.
But why are we so obsessed with dialogue tags? Do they really matter? In my opinion, they do, but they should be discreet. They are there to provide the basic information of who is speaking. Of course, this can be done in a number of ways; line breaks indicate when someone new starts talking, and if you’re a master of dialogue, then even the character’s vocabulary and tone will convey their identity.
See how King has composed the dialogue in the following example:
“Want your boat, Georgie?” Pennywise asked. “I only repeat myself because you really do not seem that eager.” He held it up, smiling. [. . .]
“Yes, sure,” George said, looking into the storm drain.
“And a balloon? I’ve got red and green and yellow and blue . . .”
“Do they float?”
“Float?” The clown’s grin widened. “Oh yes, indeed they do. They float! And there’s cotton candy . . .”
By using line breaks, explaining what the characters are doing with their faces/bodies while they’re speaking, and writing dialogue to match their innocent or demonic demeanours, King has shown as opposed to told the reader who is speaking, and how they are saying it.
And while King’s malice relates mostly to adverbs, I’d argue that using fancy verbs isn’t necessary, either. There is no need to write, “he ululated”; instead, either stick to the single-syllable tags (cried, whined, howled) or show the reader what the character is doing:
Before: “I can’t believe you ate the last slice,” he intoned.
After: “I can’t believe you ate the last slice.” His lip trembled as he regarded the empty pizza box.
While there’s no one-size-fits-all rule, dialogue tags are well worth your consideration as a fiction writer. Whether you love or hate colorful verbs or adverbs in your dialogue tags, the most important thing is to consider whether they illuminate or weigh down what’s really important: the character’s words themselves.
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