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How many dialogue tags are ok?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Writer’s_Magic, May 23, 2018.

  1. Often, I read it isn’t a good idea to use “said”. But many other authors wrote in their blogs, you should use it. So, my question is now: How many “said” (or other dialogue tags) is ok?
     
  2. CupofJoe

    CupofJoe Myth Weaver

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    I tend to use said more often than not. I will use other tags when they work.
    Why write 'Get out,' he said angrily.
    when you can write 'Get out,' he growled.
    I will leave them out all together if it is only two people talking and it is clear who is saying what.
    I think it is using a different tag for each and every bit of speech that can look strange to a reader. At least it does to me.
     
  3. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    As few as possible while still keeping clarity.
     
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  4. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    I've kind of learned the opposite, when in doubt, just use said. It is often the mark of a beginner writer that every bit of dialog has a different attributive attached to it.

    For myself, I don't really stop and ask about this anymore. I just do what feels right. Often, I am looking for where I can drop the dialog tag altogether and not use anything. But sometimes that affects clarity.
     
  5. Heliotrope

    Heliotrope Staff Article Team

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    Yes, sort of. The reader should know, based on what is happening and how it is said, who is talking, without having to resort to tags.

    Jamie handed me a bag of chips. I cracked open the bag, breathed in the heavy vinegar scent and grinned.

    "I love this kind." The chips were kettle cooked, extra thick and extra crispy. Jamie nodded in agreement, his mouth full of the crunchy goodness.

    "Omph, freally, soog." He must have got chip up his nose because he snorted, then coughed the entire mouthful onto Jessie, who sat directly in front of us on the bus, eyes glued to his Nintendo. When he felt the spray of salt and vinegar and saliva soak potato he whipped around, a look of sheer disgust on his normally placid face.

    "Seriously, you guys!" He wiped the mess from the back of his neck. "That's disgusting!"

    Do you see how dialogue tags are not necessary? If I do use them, I stick to "said", "asked" or "whispered." But that is all.
     
    Last edited: May 23, 2018
  6. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    “If in doubt of the speaker, use said,” he said.

    She said, “And note, he didn’t say it in any way with a -ly adverb.”
     
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  7. pmmg

    pmmg Auror

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    Expertly said.
     
  8. Devor

    Devor Fiery Keeper of the Hat Moderator

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    I would say I use dialogue tags for about half of my lines of dialogue, and I use said for about 1 in 4 dialogue tags. Usually I use phrases like:

    "...," she began.
    "...," he asked.
    "...," she answered.
    "...," she continued.
    "...," he cut in.
    "...," she went on, ignoring him.

    Read those words again. How much of what's happening do these dialogue tags imply, all by themselves?

    But actually, that's not really how i use them, either.

    "...," she began with a soft smile across her face that made him want nothing more than to listen to her, and yet forget to, all at once.
    "...," he asked, having no idea how stupid he sounded because he completely missed what she just said.
    "...," she answered as if repeating herself was normal.
    "...," she continued explaining the point he kept missing.
    "...," he cut in.
    "...," she went on, ignoring him.

    And that's assuming the dialogue doesn't have more drama than that. People really do whisper, mutter, stutter, shout and roar. Sometimes she shot back with an insult without even thinking about it. Sometimes he called out to her because hey, that's an accurate description of what he's doing.

    "I'll kill you!" she said, swinging her ax down upon his head
    - I'm sorry, but to me that use of said is wrong. She didn't say. She yelled, or roared, or shouted or something. Failing to use the right word might not go noticed by the reader, but you cut off the momentum of your action.

    I'll kill you!" she screamed at him, swinging her ax down upon his head. Here the dialogue tag isn't just designating the speaker but also bridging the dialogue and the action. Sure you might imagine that she's screaming even with the word said, but screamed at him has connotations, and power, and energy that builds the scene's momentum.

    Dialogue tags are a part of your prose. It might not be highest priority on the list, but of course you should learn to use them well.
     
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  9. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

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    All of them.
     
  10. ThinkerX

    ThinkerX Myth Weaver

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    In the first draft, I'll go with 'said' about half the time. Other acceptable tags are 'asked,' 'whispered,' 'shouted,' or 'gasped.' Rewrite, I try to pare these down - but clarity is critical.
     
  11. Demesnedenoir

    Demesnedenoir Istar

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    I think a person could gasp one word. I try for context with whispers... Laura leaned into Ted’s ear. “,,,,” Actual example:

    She leaned in, glancing around to make sure no one listened. “I’ve got a special one. Don’t tell Papa.”

    Sometimes it’s just more expedient to use tags, but I like to keep them to a minimum.
     
  12. evolution_rex

    evolution_rex Inkling

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    I haven’t had anyone tell me to use other words than said since high school, and only then it was teachers who just wanted to encourage a high vocabulary.

    When you read dialogue, the ‘he/she said’ lines tend to disappear because the reader naturally focuses the words being spoken. So, to spruce them up with added wordage just detracts from the dialogue (that doesn’t count describing actions the individual speaking is performing while while talking, of course).

    I agree with ThinkerX that those are the only other acceptable words too. I am sure there are a couple others but none come to mind. I use to use ‘responded’ a lot and while I think that can work occasionally I sort of just let it fade out of my vocabulary when writing.
     
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  13. J Q Kaiser

    J Q Kaiser Dreamer

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    <claps> Well done, there, sir. Well done, indeed. Loved it.
     
  14. Simulacrum

    Simulacrum Dreamer

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    This. Nothing screams “amateur” quite like a writer who is obsessed with finding replacements for “said.” Often that compunction results in really weird forms of attribution and/or using words in ways they’re not supposed to be used.

    Worrying about phrasing attribution should be way down on the list of concerns.
     
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  15. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Precisely three.
     
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  16. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    Hey! Fifthview is back! Waddup? :D

    This I wholeheartedly agree with. There's no reason to limit the use of all the tools in your writerly toolbox.

    I pretty much use whatever comes to mind as I'm in the flow: said, stated, responded, answered, whispered, said with a snarl, said with a growl, said with a shrug, cried, sobbed, said angrily, said loftily, you get the drift. If the rhythm is right and the flow is good, then it stays.
     
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  17. FifthView

    FifthView Istar

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    Some of these can simply be a descriptive sentence rather than a dialogue tag per se.

    She answered as if repeating herself was normal. "A muggle is just a name for non-magic folk."

    She went on, ignoring him. "If we don't attack tonight, we'll have to contend with the Honor Guard tomorrow."

    He completely missed what she just said and had no idea how stupid he sounded. "Can't we just take the MacGuffin back to our dorm room and deal with it tomorrow?"

    Jonas cut in. "Debra, it's not your call."​

    Six, half dozen.

    I think the two approaches will create different flows for the narrative, build up a stylistic approach that would distinguish one from the other if used exclusively and frequently. But generally, if the flow is okay and doesn't distract from the narrative, then six, half dozen.

    In the past, I've been firmly in the camp that says to limit dialogue tags to said or eliminate most of them. But too often, I've realized after the fact that a book I've just enjoyed didn't follow that advice, heh.

    I do think that inept usage can grate. Excessively, flowery substitutions for said, when used ineptly, can grate. Lots of -ly descriptions can grate.

    "I don't care, I don't like him," Harry said furiously.
    "You're being unfair to him," she replied petulantly.
    Ron couldn't stand to see them argue like this. "Would you two just stop it," he wailed exasperatedly.​
     
    Last edited: May 26, 2018
  18. D.G. Laderoute

    D.G. Laderoute Dreamer

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    When you use dialogue tags, you should almost always just use "said". The objective is to have the reader play out the conversation in their own imagination, using whatever voices, mannerisms etc. they've assigned to the character...and readers do assign these things to characters, and to your story. Every reader is going to bring different experiences, memories, values, beliefs, etc. to your story--and that's a good thing, a natural collaboration between writer and reader. If "said" by itself doesn't communicate the emotion(s) your character is currently displaying, then use some "show".

    Bob slammed the door. "I can't spend another minute with her!"

    This has the added benefit of functioning as a sort of dialogue tag, identifying Bob as the speaker.

    In many cases, you don't need an explicit tag at all, EXCEPT to identify the speakers.

    Bob slammed the door. "I can't spend another minute with her!"
    "Yeah," Bill said, "but you're going to call her tonight anyway, aren't you?"
    "Shut up."
    "Just sayin'."
    Bob glared at Bill. "Have I ever told you how much I hate you?"
    "At least once a day," Bill said, grinning.

    The advantage of "said" is that it's almost invisible, fading into the narrative in an unobtrusive way. The problem with many alternatives to "said"--or too many uses of "said"--is that it yanks the reader out of the story.

    Bob slammed the door. "I can't spend another minute with her!" he said.
    "Yeah," Bill said, "but you're going to call her tonight anyway, aren't you?"
    "Shut up," Bob said.
    "Just sayin'," Bill said.
    Bob glared at Bill. "Have I ever told you how much I hate you?" he said.
    "At least once a day," Bill said, grinning.

    Now, the occasional use of an alternative to said can actually enhance the narrative. Sparing use of tags like "snapped" or "hissed" can be very effective, but the key word there is SPARING.
     
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  19. Chessie2

    Chessie2 Staff Article Team

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    ^ I disagree about 'should' use said. There are no 'shoulds' when it comes to creative writing, which is an artform and expression of the soul. Adhering to strict rules puts out products that lack personality and depth. If a writer isn't using all the tools available then they are doing themselves and their audience a huge disservice.
     
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