He said, she said, but nobody ever asks.

I have devoured a number of books on writing over the past few months (my personal pick is "The First Five Pages" by Noah Lukeman – it gives you everything you need to know in under 200 pages) and they all say the same thing about dialogue (or speaker) tags - use the simple said instead of a more colourful verb or adverb-verb combination.

The reason is that you don't want the tag detracting from the dialogue. Alternatively, the dialogue belongs to the characters and the reader and does not require the author being obtrusive with a hollered, bellowed, screeched, whispered, or panted line of dialogue.

I think a little hint in the way of dialogue can't hurt, but ok, I'll accept that the use of said is less invasive and allows the reader to remain in the story. Except ... when it obviously should be something other than said.

When I read to the kids, I find it extremely annoying to read something like: "Are you all right?" he said.

Why are authors afraid to use asked?

The most recent irritant I read was "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe". Nearly every question is said not asked.

"Where is mister Tumnus?” said Lucy.

"Who is Aslan?” said Peter.

"What are you?" she said.

Just a few weeks earlier I had been cursing a Pokemon book I was reading to JJ for exactly the same thing - questions said not asked (that and the fact the story didn't exactly flow from the tongue). I was wondering if an editor had even bothered to look over the book.

You can find some examples of dialogue tag abuse here here

Also came across a blog called The Rejecter which is ostensibly written by someone who works as an assistant at a literary agency weeding out those 95% of manuscripts that just aren't meant to see the light of day.


Barbara said…
I suppose we are looking to those tags simply to identify the speaker. I have seen dialog written without the tags, forcing the reader to keep track of whose turn it was to talk. Now that is really confusing if you get off. I tend to like to avoid direct quotations if possible, but there is something so immediate about dialogue.
tin-tin said…
hahaha. i didn't notice that :)
vina said…
"hi, tito richard!" vina said. "i have been having a hard time connecting to and commenting on blogger sites." she added.

"anyway, i just want to greet you and your family a happy new year, and a belated merry birthday to your sofia!" she exclaimed.

busybee said…
hahaha.... I like your post title. :D
KayMac said…
"Why, I have never noticed this before. Have you?" I asked.
I'm surprised what gets accepted in the way you described as good literature. I've spent so much time teaching Gr. 3's to use varied words and descriptive language! I heard someone narrate a story on CBC who had nothing but "said" back and forth like a ping pong ball! It sounded monotonous. I quit listening.
freckled-one said…
I hadn't noticed that either. How interesting.
Richard said…
barbara: definitely, the purpose of those tags is to help us identify the speaker. Although, I think good writing should make that clear, so you only need to throw in a tags periodically. Mind you, I got caught not putting in tags in one of my posts and people interpreted the dialogue differently from what was intended.

tin-tin: you are not supposed to notice, that is the point. I only notice because I am reading out loud and it sounds awful.

vina: nice to see you back. Blogger can be temperamental.

bee: thanks. I always try to choose "clever" (at least what I think are clever) titles. Maybe there are gazillions of visitors who see my titles and groan at the painfully strained cleverness of them. As an technical writing assignment once, we had to write up instructions for something. I wrote up a procedure on folding a paper airplane. I titled it: Making Time Fly.

kaymac: yes, I have, but I never gave it much thought. When I read silently, I skip over most speaker tags because they interfere with the flow of the dialogue.

MIO: the whole idea of using "said" is that it is very plain and ordinary and does not really get in the way of the reading experience. In the book, Make Your Words Work, Gary Provost says that as the author, your job is not to let the reader know you are there. The problem with dialogue tags is that each time you introduce one, you show yourself to the reader because you are making an interjection into the story.

The CBC should probably have gotten at least two people to read the story, this eliminating the need to the dialogue tags.

freckled-one: I think it is harder to notice when you read quietly to yourself, but it becomes very annoying when reading aloud.

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