“You’re a fool,” he sneered!

As a writer I’ve fallen flat on my face more times than I can count.
And I can count pretty high.

That’s the reason I write this blog; I write in order to pass along the lessons I wish I’d learned back in the day.

But while facedown, I can’t talk, and therefore, if I were a character in a book, I wouldn’t be able to have dialog tags associated with me.
But assuming the persons or characters in your writing are not passed out drunk, you’ll need to convey speech  using these not-so-tricky dialog tags, including:

  • “he said”
  • “she said”
  • “they said” — in the cases of collective consciousness, like ant colonies or The Borg

All are useful and necessary.   And if you have to identify persons or characters by name, then tags are necessary in those cases as well:

  • “John said”
  • “Marcia said”

And by necessary, I mean they’re needed.

Flamboyant dialog tags, however, are distractions that make your writing look like a fool’s paradise of ineptitude, amateurishness, vanity, superficiality, speciousness, shallowness, and unadulterated idiocy.  And I can say all this because I myself have been inept, amauterish, vain, superficial, specious, shallow, and idiotic.  Sometimes simultaneously.

Let’s say you’re a man.  I am, so it is possible. See?

Now, tell me whether this a good sentence.
“You’re a fool,” he sneered.

Ooh, ooh, I’ll answer that!  It’s not a good sentence.  It’s clumsy and distracting.  You cannot sneer a sentence, no matter how hard you try.  That’s because — unlike parrots — the muscles around your nose cannot mimic human language.   Were that such muscles could; I have an awesome sneer.  Just ask my wife.
On the other hand, this could be a good sentence and might convey emotion if used in the right context:
He sneered.  “You’re a fool.”

The facial expression and the quote are more than just two sentences side-by-side.   There’s an assumption of positive temporal progression … oops, sorry.  I slipped off into Star Trek land again.

Let’s try it in English: There is a sequence of events implied in this sentence.  John sneers and then he speaks.  And while the expression may remain on his face while he’s talking, he is not going to sneer a sentence into existence no matter how hard he grunts, snorts, or moans.

Now, if there are several persons (creative nonfiction, essays) or characters (fiction), then using their names is crucial to avoid general confusion, not to mention everyday stress and strain.

John sneered.  “You’re a fool.”
“You’re such a drama queen,” Marcia said.
“He is that,” Winston said, “but it still isn’t a wise thing to do.”

The word “ask” is a little trickier.  You may use it in dialog tags, but do not overdo it.  A dialog tag is only meant to be user as an identifier.  In other words, it identifies the person doing the talking.  And it is fine to use the word ask in a dialog tag even though there is a question mark at the end of the sentence.

“Would you like to have a drink sometime?” Marcia asked.

What you do not want to do is write a sentence like this one.

“Would you like to have a drink sometime?” Marcia inquired softly, in a raspy, throaty tone-of-voice that meant one thing and one thing only.

That sentence … well, that sentence sucks, for about a hundred different reasons.

So, without further ado, here’s a list of pre-conjugated dialog tags you should avoid at all cost.

  • sneered
  • spat
  • added
  • pronounced
  • answered
  • rejoined
  • spoke
  • vocalized
  • commented
  • inquired
  • implied
  • suggested
  • bellowed
  • clucked
  • rasped
  • tongued
  • prodded
  • grunted
  • beckoned
  • questioned
  • presupposed
  • articulated
  • matriculated
  • hissed
  • ejaculated

And with further ado, here’s a list of pre-conjugated dialog tags you should use.  Put “he” or “she” in front of each.

  • said
  • asked

Now I want to emphasize one more thing, then I’ll shut up.
When you’re editing your drafts, do it slowly, like good Southern sex.
But when you’re writing a first draft, do it fast, like good Southern sex.
Never write a first draft slowly.
Pax vobiscum,

P.S. Do not use exclamation points, either.  Ever.

Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker

5 thoughts on ““You’re a fool,” he sneered!

  1. Josh The Younger

    “Amazing!” I cheer as enthusiastically as I can while typing quickly on this keyboard… Being a young, inexperienced, aspiring author, I can certainly relate to this. I went through the sneer phase, and I’ll admit that I still have frequent urges to have characters add, spit, and grunt.

    Genuine question for you, though: do you think there are cases, however rare, when words like “hissed”, “screamed” work? These are things the human mouth can do, after all, and sometimes I feel that a simple “he said” doesn’t quite convey the fullest range of emotion.

    1. Very good question. My answer is no; I do not think there are cases where “hissed” or “screamed” should be used in a tag.

      If a character screams, you can say, “She screamed.” That’s a complete sentence. Or better yet: “She put her hand to her throat and screamed.”

      Dialog tags need to be treated like the placement of character names in a stage play or a screenplay. When you place a character name into a script you do not elaborate. It is simply a “marker” so that the actor knows which lines to speak.

      Likewise in fiction. The dialog tags are only needed for clarification, so the reader is not confused. It does not detract from the art of writing. Far from it, IMHO. I think it enhances it.

      As weird as it sounds, my reason for saying this is rejection. I’ve been turned away by the best agents and editors in Manhattan. But I did manage — in the course of getting rejected — to get feedback.

      Without exception, every editor I’ve dealt with has emphasized that is *vital* to maintain professionalism. Minimizing dialog tags is one of the traits of professional writers.

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