Thursday, February 17, 2011

Dailog Tags - "Fear Them Not," Said She.

And just on the heels of talking about how Dorothy L. Sayers has a tendency to write long rafts of unattributed dialog... I come across a debate in a writers forum where people are discussing the proper way to attribute dialog. In particular, whether it's proper to say "said Bob" or if one must always say "Bob said."

This is the kind of debate you'll only hear among writers. And it's a new debate, something I never heard before this year. In all the short stories I've published, not one complained or corrected a "said Bob." But some people were so adamant that it is grammatically incorrect (and archaic to boot) to reverse the subject and noun like that.

Has the world changed since I was a young writer? Could this be true? I decided to check it out by glancing through some recent issues of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

I found a few interesting things:

1.) Most writers used "he said" rather than "Bob said" the vast majority of the time. Like ten-to-one at least. When they felt the need to use a character name, they used it in description and left off the tag. (Such as: "I don't know what I'll do." Mindy started to cry. "I'm scared to death.")

2.) When they did use character names it was pretty evenly split between "Bob said" and "said Bob." (Maybe leaned slightly toward "Bob said" but not much.) About a quarter of the authors used both, depending on the situation.

3.) When they didn't have a name, and had to use a description (i.e. "the cop" or "the waitress") they usually put the verb first, i.e. "said the cop."
Hard-boiled writers are really fond of starting sentences with the attribution. Like this: He said, "Why didn't you call the police?"

4.) Just an oddity -- the two writers I came across who used way too many dialog tags both used exclusively "Bob said" and also tended toward said bookisms -- i.e. using other verbs instead of said. "Watch out!" Sally warned. "Why so?" Bob inquired. "There are bad guys out there," Sally noted. (I think they were trying too hard.)

"He said" and "she said" tend to be invisible to the audience, and I think part of the reason writers argue about it is because most writers never notice how other writers use dialog tags either. They just assume everyone uses them the same way they do - or the way their favorite teacher taught them.

There is another perennial debate over dialog tags: how many to use. Some writers believe that you should never use them at all, if you can possibly avoid it. Frankly, I think this is purely a writer thing. I don't think readers notice, unless it's super repetitive. (Or the writer is trying too hard to be creative with the said bookisms.)

So here is my conclusion: Don't sweat it. Use dialog tags as they come naturally to you. When you're editing, edit it like you would any other kind of language. Cut or change the repetitive and awkward stuff. Otherwise leave it alone. You don't have to make it fancy, you don't have to prove how clever you are by writing around it.

Dialog tags are there for one purpose: to keep the audience from getting lost. Road signs are a good thing. Keep them simple and discrete, and those who don't need them won't notice them. But if any are missing, those who do need them will be in trouble - so don't be stingy.

Tomorrow, an update and some interesting links.

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Jenny said...

Years ago when taking one of my first writing courses in college, the professor had us read "Hills Like White Elephants," by Ernest Hemingway as a study in dialog. He was a stickler about not over-tagging, claiming that as long as you could follow the conversation without getting lost, you could easily write an entire story with almost no dialog tags. I still don't believe him. Great post!

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

Good points...I don't like having to figure out who is talking--takes me right out of a story!

Debra Brown said...

I keep my thesaurus open to "said" on one tab and use another for other words I want to look up. I try to avoid the word "said" if there is any other possibility when using a dialog tag. It just doesn't seem to fit into my stories- feels like it sticks out, to me.

Anonymous said...

I have run across that advice before, offered only with the exception that if you were using an elaborate phrase for the person being attributed to.

It annoyed me so much that I took to using "said Bob" all the time. 0:)

The Daring Novelist said...

Thanks all for commenting. Dialog tags are certainly an individual thing.

I have to admit, I don't like the "said bookisms" myself -- which is what it is when you avoid using "said" but instead use "chortled," "whispered," "noted," "cried," etc. "Said" is invisible, and the others draw attention to themselves... which can be a good thing, if they are what comes naturally in the text though.

But, it's an individual thing to suit your style. Rules are a-changing. Once upon a time, that was a popular style - the Tom Swift stories were famous for it. People started creating exaggerated versions, called "Tom Swifties." These were versions with a pun built in. (Ironically "Tom Swifties" were seldom used in Tom Swift).

Example of a Tom Swifty: "Throw them out," he disgorged.