Last week, Eric over at Quantam wondered if the use of the dialogue tag “said” was dead. The example he chose was Isaac Asimov’s NAKED SUN. Asimov basically wrote the book without any dialogue tags at all. Eric noted that they weren’t missed.
Most how-to books on writing fiction will tell writers that they need to concentrate on the dialogue itself and forget the use of tags other than an unobtrusive ‘said’ or ‘replied.’ Dialogue tags tell the reader the emotion; the dialogue or the action surrounding it shows the reader the emotion. Show, not tell, the mantra of all good fiction.
The problem is, writers break this rule all the time and still manage to write compelling fiction. No less a writer than JK Rowling is known as the Queen of the Adverb, and the liberal sprinkling of them all through her books never slowed down her sales.
I have to confess that the use of dialogue tags tortures me. I’m doing the best I can to get along without them, but sometimes I really want to insert a ‘he blurted,’ or ‘she cried’. Lordy, I pray to the dialogue god, please help me figure out how to say this without resorting to the tag. Sometimes I let it stand. The tag just feels right; it either adds a missing beat or conveys what I want without having to resort to “the crooked brow“.
I went back to some of the masters of the craft to see how they deal with tags. Here’s a sample from Elmore Leonard. Melly blogged about his rules of fiction writing just last week.
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