I got roped into a discussion on a forum for writers (oh, that can be a time sink!) on writing dialog. The person who started the topic said they were looking for “dialog tags” other than said or asked because they thought using those all the time is boring.
Using other words for dialog tags is known as “said bookisms” and are almost universally frowned upon. And if taken to extremes they can turn something worth reading into something worth chucking at the wall.
But in some cases they do enhance the writing. For example…
Sarah’s mother hissed, “Get over here now!”
Anybody who’s had a Mom *knows* what that sounds like and I think it’s stronger than something like,
With narrowed eyes and pursed lips, Sarah’s mother said, “Get over here now!”
If you don’t think the second example is stronger, that doesn’t negate the fact that sometimes a “said bookism” is worth using — let’s take a look at what’s happening in the real world.
Last night I downloaded the “samples” of 6 of the top 10 books from the current NYTimes bestseller list and looked through each of them for all the dialog tags.
I didn’t count things such as…
Brady laughed. “You’re too much.”
…because with the period there it makes it two separate things. But…
Brady laughed, “You’re too much.”
…did count. So here’s what I found — in all cases said and asked (or, says and asks for 1st person books) were by far the most numerous. But every one of the books I looked at included at least a few more (again, this was just the first part of the book available to be downloaded as a sample)…
Stolen Prey by John Sanford
11th Hour by James Paterson & Maxine Paetro
Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris
- muttered (x2)
Calico Joe by John Grisham
Bring Up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel
- chuckles (x2)
The Wind Through the Keyhole by Stephen King
- agreed (x5)
Also, in many cases there were no dialog tags – context made it perfectly clear who was doing the talking. In many other cases, such as the first “Brady laughed” example above there was some kind of action next to the dialog that also made it clear who was talking.
Said and asked should be used by default — you probably don’t need to worry about boring the reader by using those if best-selling authors use them 95% of the time.
- Exception #1: Two characters back and forth don’t need to be tagged every time.
- Exception #2: If there’s an action happening (and is described) as the person talks, a dialog tag isn’t necessary.
- Exception #3: When something other than said or asked makes the story/intent/character more clear for the reader.