To Said or Not to Said…

If you were to search the Internet for rules regarding the use of dialogue tags, you’d find a broad spectrum of opinions. Some people will tell you that you should NEVER use anything other than said. Some will say that you can use the occasional replied, asked, and inquired. And some will even say that you can go hog wild on the quipped, growled, and hissed.

Note: If you ever use hissed for dialogue that isn’t soaking in “s” words, I’m calling your mother.

I fall a bit in the middle I suppose. My first aim is to use no dialogue tags if I can help it. If that is not possible, I use said for a regular sentence or possibly asked/replied when a question is involved. As much as I love the sound of tags like growled, I think there are two main issues with these:

1) Following the rules of show don’t tell, it is better to show a character’s emotion, rather than state it.

2) Any dialogue tag (or description for that matter) that implies a tone or feeling and comes AFTER the dialogue, forces the reader to rethink the sentence.

To illustrate, let’s look at three examples.

a) “I said I would be there later,” growled Robert.

b) Robert growled. “I said I would be there later.”

c) Robert’s eyes narrowed to two tiny slits. “I said I would be there later.'”

In the case of example a, we don’t know that Robert is angry until after we finish the sentence so we almost have to re-read it once we see the growled. This is improved in b, except we still have the problem of telling his anger rather than showing it. In c, we have shown his anger in a descriptive tag and then given the dialogue afterwards. In this case, the reader has a picture of an angry Robert in his or her head BEFORE hearing his words.

Category: On Writing