Tag, you’re it.

My absolute loathing of the dialogue tag ‘opined’ is no secret. (By all the gods, Baxter, if you start tagging me with that shit again, I will steal your dogs.) If you’re using ‘opined’, or another wankerish dialogue tag to push home to the reader some kind of pretentious point your character is making, then you need to take a look at your character’s dialogue because it should be pretty clear they’re voicing their opinion.

Dialogue tags serve a few purposes. For example, they identify the speaker, they break longer pieces of dialogue, and they can also be used to further enhance emotion. And yes, that third point should be used sparingly – if you can’t convey emotion through dialogue and action, then a dialogue tag telling the reader so, doesn’t really cut it.

Use ‘said’. Almost always use ‘said’. Of course there are going to be exceptions to this ‘rule’, but the beauty of ‘said’ is that it’s invisible. It ensures the emphasis is on the spoken word, on the emotions put forward within those words, and the honesty and/or sub-text behind it.

Dialogue is the voice of your characters, and I’m not just talking accents and inflections here, I’m talking a deeper sense of self. When a character speaks, they reveal a lot about not only themselves but the situation/scene they find themselves in (do not use ‘he/she revealed’, if the characters says it, trust me, it’s revealed). You don’t need a fancy-shmancy dialogue tag, it’s distracting, and removes focus from speech.

Sure, there are times when ‘said’ isn’t going to cut it, but choose words that impact the dialogue, eg. whispered, muttered, shouted, screamed. These dialogue tags up the ante, but use them sparingly or they’ll become repetitive. No, put down that Thesaurus – use ‘said’.

Opine

Same applies with ‘asked’. If there’s a question mark at the end of your dialogue, it’s safe to assume the reader understands a question is being posed – ‘asked’ becomes redundant (don’t use ‘posed’ either, that’s redundant as well).

Look, I understand there are a lot of ‘rules’ to writing and grammar and all that comes with storytelling, but as an editor and a reader, I’m telling you: let the dialogue do the work for you, and let the dialogue tag (if you need one) become invisible. It’s the characters’ voices we want to hear, not the way you tell us they spoke.

Show the reader through dialogue, through action. It falls in line with ‘show don’t tell’. You want the reader to know the character is angry? Don’t use: ‘he/she said angrily’, show us through the narrowing of eyes, the gritting of teeth, or punching a wall, for example. Then use ‘she/he said’. The emotion and/or sense the character is trying to put forward is far more visual, far more visceral, and the reader will be far more engaged than having a character opine at them (you use that, and I’ll cut you).

For a far more polite understanding of the above, check out Devin Madson’s vlog on this very subject: Almost Always Use Said, it has some wonderful insights as to why you shouldn’t fancy up your dialogue attributions.

So, the next time you’re writing dialogue, remember to make that attribution invisible so the voice of your character holds the power it should.

(Seriously, Baxter, I will steal your dogs.)

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