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There’s a great discussion about the use of dialogue tags over at BookEnds today.

Did I say discussion? It’s actually more of a pile-on at this point. A few people tried to defend (half-heartedly) the use of a variety of tags rather than just using “said” to show who’s speaking, but they were pretty much drowned out by the die hards. (edited to add – it looks like more middle-of-the-roaders have joined the debate now. I should have checked back while I was writing this! Maybe I didn’t need to bother.)

It’s been a hot topic in the how-to-write world for years. Elmore Leonard is often quoted in this regard, as is Stephen King.

The argument goes like this: if you use any word other than “said” to show who is speaking, or if you use adverbs, you are a lazy writer. Period.

My response to that is: yes, sometimes it’s a sign of lazy writing, but it isn’t always. And even when it’s “wrong” – i.e. when it weakens the scene or pulls the reader out of the story – it can be a sign of insecure, rather than lazy, writing. Beginners often make the mistake of overdoing the tags and the adverbs. It’s like a form of insurance – you did your best to get your point across, but you’re worried that you’ve failed, so you subconsciously buttress your own words with some not-so-subtle ones. I don’t count this as lazy writing, but it’s definitely a habit that one needs to spot and then to work on, slowly, as a confidence-building exercise.

When I started writing for publication, I made this mistake – a lot. In fact, it was rampant, yet unconscious, and I really appreciated the first time I saw the argument/advice about tags and adverbs in an article about strengthening your writing. From then on, I kept an eye on my habit, and did my best to purge my writing of the dreaded mistakes. (And when I finally get a chance to re-write and re-issue those early books, you can bet those changes, along with POV tweaks, will be made.)

Such exercises have made me a stronger writer, not to mention, a more confident one. But part of that confidence is allowing myself to use tags and adverbs where I feel they serve a purpose. For example, there may be a rhythm to a sentence that I really love, and the tag may play an integral part in that rhythmic wording. Also, certain tags can be useful in achieving a fast, light pace. And let’s face it, I’m writing fast, sassy stories – on purpose.

Do I still hesitate to use tags and adverbs? Definitely. If I’m writing a first draft, I give them some thought. And when I’m working on my final draft, I give them extra scrutiny. And in the copy-editing stage, if someone with a light touch lines a couple of them out, I'm grateful for the help. Once they survive that, however, I own them without apology.

Do I wish I could write a book that used ‘SAID’ as the only dialogue tag? Nope. Where’s the fun in that? I understand that Elmore Leonard loves writing that way, and it works for him. That’s fantastic. But the truth is, I’ve read a couple of his stories, and found that as a reader, I don’t enjoy his style of writing. So why on earth would I try to write like him?

It always boils down to that for me. I’ve asked myself the following question more than once: If you knew you had the ability to write a bestselling book with stark prose and a depressing ending so vivid and gut wrenching that it would earn you an exalted place in the literary world for the next two hundred years, would you embark upon that project?

The answer? Nah. I want to keep improving as an author, and so I will continue to challenge myself on these and other craft points. But as an author of light, quick-paced stories, I believe adverbs and dialogue tags, when used judiciously, can make a positive contribution to the effect I’m trying to create. They’re part of my style. Part of my voice. So that’s pretty much that.

(And don’t get me started on Stephen King. His tags may be first-rate, but the dialogue itself? Hmmm… have you ever met a woman who actually talks like his female characters? He’s a master of plot and atmosphere, and the characters themselves can be great, but when it comes to the words they utter, tags are the least of the problem. I’m not surprised when men use him as a “shining” example of a dialogue guru, but when females do it, I start forming crazy theories about why, why, why.)

Sheesh, I haven't done a "writing tips" sort of post in a while. I meant to talk about my new works-in-progress. I'd better do that soon!




( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 7th, 2008 11:56 pm (UTC)

I really enjoyed this post. I think it's good of you to go to bat for insecurity in a writer. I am also enjoying the passion of people's different points of view! Enjoyable. Great writing tips, also...:)


P.S. I sure would hate to go up against you in court.....you remind me of Kristie!...;)
Jul. 8th, 2008 03:38 am (UTC)
Re: Opinions....
Thanks, Jeanette!

Jul. 8th, 2008 08:11 pm (UTC)
I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
as a reader, "said" all the time bothers me. And now that so many books go to audio and I listen to them, wow, sometimes it gets REALLY ANNOYING. I listened to a book a couple of months ago and by the end, I was thinking about ways the author could have made it obvious who was talking without "'sentence sentence sentence,' she said."

Of course, writers are geared to the written word. But as more and more books go audio as well as print, do you need to consider that audience? Should a work translate into audio without problem? Not to start a discussion on that, it's just something for y'all to ponder . . . I listen to Catie's books in audio. I started doing that b/c the audio was actually cheaper for me than the print and I found that not only did I enjoy it, but I also got to the books faster (have we mentioned my TBR that will take at least 2 years to get through lately?). The Walker Papers and The Negotiator have translated REALLY well to audio (and why isn't that other publisher's book -- the one with the cleavage on the front -- in audio hmmm Ms. Kat or whatever you call yourself over here)?

But I digress a bit. At any rate, give me more ways of knowing who's talking than "said."


Jul. 8th, 2008 09:06 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
Hey, Penn, nice to see you!

Well, that's such an interesting point about audio books. I imagine that in the "abridged' versions they take many of the tags out completely, since we can tell who's talking by the different voices. But with the unabridged (which are the ones I prefer, of course) then you're right, the tags could get very, very annoying. I haven't noticed that yet, but I'm going to listen to THE LAST TEMPLAR when we take a trip down the coast next week, so I'll test your theory.


Jul. 9th, 2008 02:32 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
Most audiobooks don't bother me. In the case where I got annoyed, it was either the author using to many "he said" "she said" and/or the reader. I noticed -- once I started anaylzing -- a LOT of "said" and it was often at the end of the sentence/phrase/paragraph rather than the beginning or middle and the reader tended to put extra emphasis on the final word of a sentence. So, start with too many "said"s to begin with and then add a reader emphasizing the word over and over and you get . . . a reader figuring out how the author could have changed her way of letting you know who was speaking.

In the 100 or so books that I've listened to in the last 2.5 years, that's the first one that I noticed the tags. It was a fun, fluffy, crazy story but the tags. sigh. :)

Jul. 10th, 2008 03:07 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
I like audiobooks, but they can be frustrating for that very reason. Words that wouldn't have jumped out at us when reading a paper book might be emphasized by the reader -- sometimes that's good, but often, not so.

As a reader, I tend to skim when descriptive paragraphs get too long or involved. With an audio book, I'm forced to hear all of it, which can make me crazy. We rented a Dean Koontz book once and I despised it because the over-the-top descriptions went on for pages and pages (with a melodramatic narrator). I always wondered if I might have liked it had I been reading it myself and skimming a lot.

The opposite happened with THE EGYPTOLOGIST. I found the descriptive backstory annoying, and if I'd been reading it myself, I would have skimmed those and perhaps missed many of the nuances that made the second half of the book so riveting. It's the perfect example of a book that I actually appreciated MORE because I experienced it as an audio.

I only listen to four or five books a year -- on car trips. Otherwise, I'm still a paper book junkie, so I'm not much of an expert on audio.


Jul. 8th, 2008 11:41 pm (UTC)
Re: I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
Hey Kate,

I just went and looked over some of the books I really liked, and have to admit that I kinda/sorta agree with Penn's post. I read one where he said or she said, every other five seconds. I had not really paid attention until going over and reading all the goings on about said and what to say and what not to say. Then, flipped through yours and yours is not full of said. I enjoy your pacing. I still enjoyed the other book but did notice myself pausing with all the saids and what not. Interesting. Whodathunkit??....:)

I was going to comment over at the other site, but surely didn't want to say the wrong thing....just kidding....thought they were interesting.....

Jul. 9th, 2008 12:30 am (UTC)
Re: I'm not going to go over there, but I will say
It's definitely interesting, Jeanette. Maybe it's an example of how the writer and the reader each bring something to a book. The writer can do the best job possible from his/her point of view, but after that, it either resonates with a reader or it doesn't. When it resonates, it's a beautiful thing. When it doesn't, well, that's a heartbreaker for everyone. But luckily, another reader might fall in love with it.

But one thing's for sure -- if the writer compromises his/her instincts, then the result probably won't resonate with anyone. What a disaster!

I'm so glad you like the pacing of mine -- thanks! And as for the other book in your example, that one clearly resonated with you too! Which goes to show that the dialogue tags, while one factor, can never make or break a book (unless they're so overdone that the book begins to drip).

The luxurious fact is that when a book works, we -- as readers -- don't need to figure out why. It just works, and it's magic.

But when it doesn't work, that's when we -- the reader and the author -- start analyzing. ( or in the case of the author -- obsessing!)

Jul. 9th, 2008 12:26 pm (UTC)
I know!...

I was trying to figure out why I enjoy your pacing and dialogue so much and read this and........a thought just slapped upside my head!

Your pacing is sooooo marvelous and your characters speak, long before they've ever said a word, if you understand my meaning. Not only that, but you let the characters speak for themselves. I get the delicious treat of finding things out for myself and not being led...:)

As for the book I mentioned, I must admit that it is the characters I loved and the plot, and plus the author rocks so I subconsciously blocked all the saids and such, I imagine. I read this book more than ten years ago and had never forgotten it and had to buy it again. Just beautifully written.

In short, I think it's a combination of trust between the writer/reader. Trust that writer knows that the reader WILL get the intent, and trust that the reader knows that he/she can trust an author with pointing him/her in the right direction.

I think it's like getting a letter from a friend: the spelling may not always be right, but you know he/she was communicating their care. Probably a silly analogy but it works for me. Thanks for giving me some great nuggets to ponder on today....

Jul. 10th, 2008 03:11 pm (UTC)
Re: I know!...
One of my favorite things about reading is that we can let all of our defenses down and just open ourselves to the story. Sure, we might not like the book once we get into it, but by and large, I think we really give books a chance in a way we don't always do with other things/events/people in our lives.

No wonder we use words like "magical" to explain how we feel when a story works for us!
( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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