Who Said That 🗨 Neil McGowan

 Over the last few weeks I've been sifting through a pile of short stories written by new, local writers. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first (and the most important) is to provide a critique that will encourage the author and help them improve their story. Secondly, I wondered if there would be any common themes identified which might form the basis of an article.

Forty-three stories later (it was all short stories, 3000 words maximum - I am the first to admit I know almost nothing about poetry) there was a clear theme that stood out.


Dialogue tags.


Or rather, an over-enthusiastic approach to them.


I've read more ways to attribute speech recently than I care to think about: (S)he enthused, bemoaned cried, whispered, intoned, breathed, muttered, screamed, laughed, gasped…


I could go on. The point is, none of these options are wrong, when used in moderation. But if every sentence of dialogue has a different tag, it becomes hard to read, and may lead to the reader losing the connection with the story, or, worse, abandoning it.


The best form of dialogue attribution is none at all. The words (and the situation) should give the reader enough context to infer how they were spoken. Tone and volume can be indicated in other, more subtle ways that better serve the story. If I'm writing a tense scene where two characters are hiding from a third, rather than just use '(s)he whispered', I'd much rather show this through actions - perhaps by having one of the characters raising a finger to their lips and shaking their head. The words should need no other labels.


The same holds true in scenes with extended dialogue. Tone, and context should be inferred by the situation. Keeping track of who is speaking should primarily be driven through the character voices. Occasionally, it may be necessary to add a tag for conciseness, but this is where the second-best option comes in: Said.


Again, the dialogue itself should provide enough context for the reader. Adding '…said' is adding clarity without colouring the reader's perception.

Like all things writing-related, there are exceptions to this (I'd choose 'whispered' over 'said softly' every time) but it's something I (try) to apply to my own writing. The first rewrite is where I try to catch all those little slips and tidy them up. Do I change every single one of them? No. But does it lead to a better story when I do? Yes. Concentrating on dialogue often reveals weak or sloppy writing that can be improved, or poor characterisation.


Peter Leyland said…
Interesting Neil. What do you think of dialogue in a play-script format? Could how something is said be inferred from the words alone and would that be acceptable in the short stories you look at?
Neil McGowan said…
Hi Peter, I would say with play scripts it's definitely down to tone and inflection. I've dabbled with radio scripts and read a fair amount that have been produced and there's very little direction for dialogue. Interestingly, there seems to be slightly more in television scripts, although you'd think the visual contact would indicate less direction would be required. For me, when I'm reading, I like the author to allow me to form my own view of speech without being spoon-fed all the time. A little is okay, but tagging a every bit of speech, for me at least, serves to jar me out of engaging with the story
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Hyba Is Writing said…
What an interesting observation! I have noticed in my writing circles that a lot of writers still starting out do tend to take a lot of internet advice to heart and sometimes follow it to a rigid fault. There are a lot of advice articles out there on writing that tell writers not to use "said" with every bit of dialogue and to instead vary it a bit. I think, though I can't be certain, that perhaps what's missing there is that these writing tips articles should also let writers know - through examples, if necessary - how else to approach dialogue if not with too much "said" (or, at least, how to use "said" and its alternatives efficiently). At the end of the day, moderation seems to be key in everything. As an aside, it might be of interest to note that writing advice posted online in general has been somewhat criticized in writing communities for being too rigid, in a way, and making people feel like they need to take those tips as uncompromisable rules to the detriment of their writing.
Neil McGowan said…
Hi Hyba, my writing group is the same - we've had a couple of new members recently and that's what sparked this whole train of thought. I'd agree that a lot of guidance on the internet is too rigid and doesn't often give concrete examples as well - the key is, I think, to take it as one particular approach, rather than as a definitive method. I'd always advise people to go with what feels 'right' (the best description I ever heard as someone who said the words had to look right shape on the page, as though they belonged there).
Out of curiosity, I had a quick flick through some of the books in our house and 'said' was the word that jumped out at me most often. There was lots without attribution, and also some alternatives, but 'said' seemed to be a lot more prevalent. Totally unscientific (just grabbed the books closest to hand) but I find it interesting, might look at it in more detail
Eden Baylee said…
Agree Neil... The dialogue itself is what’s important. The tag is just functional and in most cases, the word “said” is sufficient and the most unobtrusive.

As well, not every line of dialogue has to be attributed, but I always err on the side of caution.

Thanks for the informative post Neil!

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