Sunday, May 27, 2012

I Say/Exclaim/Pronounce!

"Let's talk about dialogue tags," he said.

"Let's talk about dialogue tags," he instructed.

Which sounds better? (Hint: it's the first one.)

I had a conversation with someone about dialogue tags recently. He favored tags like "asked," "exclaimed," and the like; I said that "said" was almost always the right choice. Look at these and see which one makes more sense and reads better:

"What do you think about dialogue tags?" he said.

"What do you think about dialogue tags?" he asked.

I think the first one sounds better and eliminates redundancy. Readers will know that the person asked something because there's a question mark at the end of the sentence. The writer doesn't need to reinforce that idea. The same is true for exclamation marks. "I love dialogue tags!" he exclaimed. That's just as redundant.

A few months ago, I downloaded a mystery/thriller for my Kindle and had to stop reading less than a quarter of the way in. Among the novel's distracting faults was that people hardly ever said anything. They "asked," "interjected," "opined," "interrrupted," etc. Sprinkling in a different dialogue tag is understandable. Using them all the time is terrible.

The worst dialogue tag in history, however, was one even the great Sir Arthur Conan Doyle used often. In Conan Doyle's more innocent times, writers could get away with it. The tag was "ejaculated," used as a synonym for "exclaimed." Dialogue between Watson and Holmes would go something like . . .

"Extraordinary!" I ejaculated.
"Elementary," said he.

I dare say that, in our less innocent age, the use of "ejaculated" as a dialogue tag certainly makes the scenes read differently. Of course, if Watson had to indulge Holmes his surliness and cocaine use, perhaps Holmes had to deal with Watson's peccadilloes as well.

"Happy writing," I said.

1 comment:

  1. I think the tags other than 'said' need to be used oh-so-carefully, and for a very specific reason, perhaps as ad adjunct to the line of dialogue with action attached. P D James will almost always use 'said' to the point of sometimes starting a line, especially in answer to someone like this:

    He said:"I don't think so." Try it for variation.