“You can overuse the ‘said’ dialogue tag,” the writer said.

No, really. Hear me out.

So, I’m listening to this audiobook as I drive around town running errands yesterday during lunch. It’s an unabridged adaptation of a book I’ve not previously read, and I’d been looking forward to enjoying the story. The reader chosen for the narration was not someone I’d previously heard, either, so look at me! Trying new things and shit! “Woo,” and might I add, “hoo.”

Anyway, I fire up the audiobook and commence my errand running, and it doesn’t take long for me to realize that the writing (and the reading) has fallen into a pattern…a mind-numbing, soul-eating pattern from which my only escape was to swap the audiobook out for something else (Steel Panther, Feel the Steel, in case you were wondering).

What was this pattern, you ask? While this is not an excerpt from the story, I did model my example after a couple of sample pages from one of the opening chapters as depicted in the book’s print version:

“Sit down,” Joe said.

“What’s up?” Bob said.

“This is important,” Joe said. “It’s the scene where we convey a lot of exposition through dialogue.”

“Sounds pretty serious,” Bob said.

“Indeed it is,” Joe said. “We could be here a while.”

“That’s fine,” Bob said. “I have no idea what my character’s supposed to be doing in this story yet, anyway.”

Joe tapped his finger on the table. This probably could have led into his next line, but the writer didn’t feel that necessary or appropriate for some reason. Instead, he carried on as normal.

“You’re probably thinking this sounds pretty monotonous,” Joe said.

“Yeah,” Bob said. “Now that you mention it.”

“Don’t hope for it to get better,” Joe said. “We seem to be trapped in a pattern now.”

“Can I cross my arms?” Bob asked.

“Only if you do it in its own paragraph before speaking again,” Joe said.

“Seems weird to do it like that,” Bob said.

“I know, right?” Joe said.

“Hey,” Bob said, “what if we put ‘said’ or ‘asked’ before the actual dialogue? You know, just to change things up a bit?”

“I don’t know how to do that,” Joe said.

“Why are we here again?” Bob asked.

“I don’t remember,” Joe said.

“Hey, guys,” Adam said, walking into the room.

“How did you do that?” Joe asked.

“Do what?” Adam said.

“Talk and perform an action at the same time?” Joe said.

Adam shrugged. “I don’t know.”

“So you say,” Joe said.

“Right,” Adam said. “Anyway, what are you guys doing?”

“I don’t know about Joe,” Bob said, “but I was about to kill myself.”

ward-scream-smaller

HOLY SHIT MOMMY JUST FUCKING MAKE IT STOP.

Ahem.

Tension breaker. Had to be done.

We good here? Cool. Moving on.

As I said, this is my own example, though it’s closely modeled after the exact structure as the book in question. The actual scene goes on for several more pages, by which point I’d given up listening to the audio version.

There’s a popular writing tip that advises writers to avoid overuse of synonyms for “said” when employing dialogue attribution, or “tags.” Sure, there are a few others you can sprinkle in–asked, replied, answered to list three common ones–but otherwise? Many writing coaches tell their charges to refrain from straying too far afield with this sort of thing. The thinking is that “said” tends to fade into the background as you read. You all but ignore it.

This is less often the case when you’re stumbling over tags like “exclaimed” or “protested” or “declared” or one fan favorite, “ejaculated.”

Yes, you read that right.

Generally speaking, it’s a good guideline to follow. “Said” is nice and simple, everybody gets it, and we move on.

That said (See what I did there?), I guess you can overuse the thing. My little bit up above is a rather annoying example of that, as was the actual, honest-to-goodness published book I used as a template. Perhaps if I’d been just reading the print version, it wouldn’t have stood out, but for the audio? The repeated use of “said” along with the regimented delivery of the writing itself made it so much more obvious.

I suppose the fact that I wasn’t impressed with the audiobook reader’s rather straightforward reading of the text–no accents or other inflections given to the different characters, and so on–only made matters worse. I was loathing this book by the end of the third chapter, which is when I officially gave up on the audiobook version. I’m not quite ready to jettison the print version, but my guard’s up, now.

So, here’s the question: Is the old “Stick with ‘said'” writer tip still valid? I think so, at least for the most part. It’s okay to deviate every so often, but just don’t go crazy exclaiming and mumbling and…yes…ejaculating all over the place. It’s just rude…especially that last one. Ew, and all that.

More importantly, I think this example and the book from which I modeled it serve as a reminder that as writers, it behooves us to read our stories aloud as part of our editing/polishing activities before delivering a manuscript to our editors. For one thing, this helps us realize where we might be missing words, or repeating words, or whether we’ve constructed a particular sentence the way my cat builds Lego houses. It also helps us to hear where our writing may have fallen into a pattern or rut, like the one outlined above, rather than varying sentence length and structure to keep the reader’s eyes (or ears, if it’s an audiobook) from glazing over. And hey! You might even be able to change up those dialogue tags, every once in a while.

“Anybody else run into this?” Dayton prompted.

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About Dayton Ward

Freelance word pusher. Husband. Dad. Trekkie. Rush fan (the band). Tampa Bay Bucs fan. Observer/derider of human behavior. I know where my towel is.
This entry was posted in ramblings, rants, writing, writing advice. Bookmark the permalink.

12 Responses to “You can overuse the ‘said’ dialogue tag,” the writer said.

  1. ronny says:

    I listened to a non-fiction book that had a different issue. Every time the author quoted someone the reader would wrap “quote” and “end quote” around everything. Even quotes that were broken up in the middle with some clarification. For example:

    John described the recored as quote a radical departure end quote and another time as quote something different for us end quote.

    I don’t know how many times I heard quote and end quote but man it was a HUGE distraction. It was a book about Bowie and his Low album and they mentioned that great song from his previous album TVC15 only instead of pronouncing it TVC one five he kept referring to the song as tic fifteen.

    Changing the subject entirely, I finished Armageddon’s Arrow this morning. I loved the mystery of what the crew from the future was actually trying to accomplish. It kept me guessing until the end.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. ninelvlsup says:

    When I’m reading a few pages of dialogue, I notice many authors begin with introducing who is having the dialogue and then leaving tags out completely. So, all you have is this back and forth banter between characters that is natural and evident of who is saying what. Here is my made up example for the sake of this comment:

    “Really, Bob, tell me what’s on your mind,” Joe pleads, having walked in the room and seeing Bob seated in his mother’s chair again.

    “I’m not sure, Joe,” Bob replies, taking another drag of his cigarette.

    “Well, shouldn’t you get off your ass and see the light of day?”

    “Nah, I don’t care much for the light of day anymore, Joe.”

    “Well maybe you should start giving a damn since it’s your ass that’s going to get fat.”

    “Since when have you cared about my ass?”

    Joe didn’t have a response, instead he got lost in thought as he stared at Bob wasting his life away.

    That’s my favorite kind of dialogue to read, where it’s implied who is talking. I say the physical quotes are enough. But, hey, to each their own I guess! Great post, by the way. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Dayton Ward says:

      The thing with writing (in my opinion, anyway) is that while there are a lot of wrong ways to do things, there also are a bunch of right ways, and any guideline is subject to overuse or even abuse.

      That’s why good writers have editors to smack them every so often. 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  3. BrainRants says:

    “I’m an amateur,” Rants said, “so I’m not sure what’s right.” He scratched his bald head in doubt.
    “You’re a hack, too,” the critic added without looking up.
    “He isn’t,” another said, “just distracted and quite new at this.”
    “I’ve tapped out over a million words!” Rants folded his arms in defiance.
    “Huh,” the first critic said. “Maybe we should ask the expert.”
    “Aye,” the second agreed. “What do you think, Dayton?”
    The three men stood and watched Ward, who said nothing as he assembled a spaceship out of Legos. A cat joined them.

    While your advice on dialogue writing is perfect, this makes me wonder if a story ought to be modified – slightly – for audio format. The word, ‘said,’ does vanish to the eye, but not the ear.

    Like

    • Dayton Ward says:

      Part of what makes my favorite audiobooks work is that the reader goes out of their way to give the characters their own voice, so that the “narrating” parts tend to fade into the background a bit. I’ve become so picky about this sort of thing that I’ll actually not buy an audiobook if it’s by a reader that I don’t think does this well.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The unnecessary dialogue tag is just as distracting as a forced saidism, e.g.: “Put. That. Down,” he particulated.

    One of my many dialogue-tag pet peeves is the two-person conversation with a tag for every freaking line, per your example. There are only two people! The reader can tell who’s talking. And on top of that, sometimes there is excessive name use:

    “Bob?” Joe said.

    “Yes, Joe?” Bob said.

    “You’re going to have put the dog down, Bob,” said Joe.

    “But, Joe,” Bob said, “she’s only a year old!”

    “Bob, I don’t mean euthanize her,” Joe said, “I just mean you can’t hold her. Put her down on the floor, please.”

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Pingback: Looking back at my 2015. | The Fog of Ward

  6. Ryan says:

    I cam across this article after reading a news release about a crime committed near my home. I only managed four paragraphs before I was driven to madness by the overuse of the phrase “the affidavit said”.

    My query is this: Do normal writing principles not apply to newsprint? If so, then I’m just being pretentious in my inability to navigate what, in my mind, seemed to be a lazy and weakly written news piece.

    My thought was that the entirety of the information contained within the affidavit could have been prefaced with “according to the affidavit”. Thereby eliminating the need to have every paragraph and often times every sentence within said paragraph ending in “the affidavit said”.

    I would love some feedback as to whether I’m just being an asshole or if I’m dead on, or possibly both?

    By the way, thanks for the write up. I thoroughly enjoyed it!

    Like

    • Dayton Ward says:

      Wow I somehow missed the notification about this comment until today. Thanks for stopping by! As for the paper’s writing style or choices, I can’t even pretend to understand how that sort of thing works. 😀

      Like

  7. wordwraiths says:

    I know this is an older post, but I 100% agree with you here. (In fact I might need to share this post in some of my author groups, heh.) And I don’t think it applies only to audiobooks. I’ve read print books that overuse “said” and it is just as maddening.

    Liked by 1 person

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