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.
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.”
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.
And with further ado, here’s a list of pre-conjugated dialog tags you should use. Put “he” or “she” in front of each.
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.
P.S. Do not use exclamation points, either. Ever.
Copyright © 2012 Alan Keith Parker