A few months ago I stumbled across a funny Tumblr post labelled ‘Dialogue Tags of Doom’. I found it both entertaining and disheartening because it gives the opinion of a NYC book editor towards specific dialogue tags. I’ve copied the examples here and edited out the swearing, so if you choose to click on the link, just be aware that there is some offensive language in the original. Otherwise, here’s my PG-rated version:
“she whispered almost imperceptibly”: Good thing your protagonist has super-human powers of perception.
“she bubbled enthusiastically”: Redundant descriptors are redundant.
“he murmured”: Speak up!
“she whispered huskily”: What is she, a sled dog? Not sexy.
“he choked”: Ever hear someone choke? They can’t talk at the same time.
“he explicated”: Put down the thesaurus.
“she argued heatedly”: Show, don’t tell.
“she simpered”: Who actually simpers? It’s so 1970’s Idealized Movie Woman.
“he managed at last”: Over-used.
“he exploded”: CALL AN AMBULANCE.
“he said evilly”: If I read another word ending in “-ly” in a dialog tag, I will hunt you down and “evilly” eviscerate your cat in front of you. Fluffy doesn’t deserve that.
“she said excitedly”: WHAT DID I JUST SAY?
“she breathed”: Try taking a breath in and saying a word at the same time. You physically can’t… or at least not in a subconscious, natural way. Conversely, words are naturally formed by pushing air out over your vocal chords, so literally every word you say is accompanied by a release of air from your body. Which means that this is a stupid dialog tag because everything you say is breathed.
“she panted”: Stop turning your sexy heroines into dogs.
“he exclaimed”: What is this, the fifth grade class play? No one exclaims.
“he said seductively”: I would be laughing too hard to be seduced.
“he rambled on”: When did Led Zeppelin join the plot?
“she sighed”: So over-used.
“he answered”: The dialog immediately following a question is usually the answer, so this is a completely unremarkable tag. Now, if they were deliberately not answering the question, that would be worth remarking upon. So stop wasting my time with the obvious.
The bummer is, I use many of these dialogue tags in my writing. (That said, I don’t think any of my characters have ever ‘exploded’ – LOL!). And I really, really struggle to not go crazy with the adverbs. (Just in case you can’t remember your English classes, an example of a dialogue tag with an adverb is: “Blah, blah, blah,” he said happily.)
The whole ‘show, don’t tell’ deal has been addressed numerous times by much more experienced writers than myself, so I won’t go there (at least, not in this post!), but I think we can all agree that there are specific dialogue tags that are just plain tacky. We can even use them without realising it! (I do, anyway!). And the funny thing is, often if we’re reading a book, we might not even notice them. Here’s a classic example from Twilight:
When I read this scene in the actual book, I didn’t notice all these tags because I was too absorbed in the story. I know Stephenie Meyer’s writing style has incurred mixed opinions, but no one can deny that millions of people across the globe have read her book and enjoyed how easy it was to read. And since much of her book contains free-flowing dialogue (and tags!), then perhaps the ‘show, don’t tell’ rules aren’t always… valid.
In fact, I read a book a few weeks ago which had practically no dialogue tags at all. Not even “said”. It was entirely ‘show’, with not an ounce of ‘tell’. The writing style was in the form of:
He walked across the room. “Where can I find the table?” He looked around until he found it. “Here it is.” He took a seat and waited for his meal to arrive.
Okay, that’s a super-bad example (since I came up with it myself and it’s not from the book; not to mention, it’s really bad writing on my part – and how can anyone miss seeing a table?).
What I’m trying to say is, there’s nothing wrong with not using tags for every sentence — non-tagging can be very effective when done right! — but there were numerous times where I was confused about who was actually speaking. And it left me feeling a little like this:
I guess when it comes down to it, we all have different ways of writing. And that’s exactly how it’s supposed to be! Dialogue tagging is all about personal preference. In the end, you have to be true to your own writing style. (Or, that’s what I believe, anyway!)
Now, feel free to go back and read over those copied examples again, because they’re just as funny the second time around! (*she recommends encouragingly*)
(Uhm… Just to make sure we’re clear, I would never tag dialogue with ‘she recommends encouragingly’. I was aiming for funny. Now it’s awkward. Le sigh).