Thursday, August 21, 2014

Variety in Dialog Tags: Two Schools of Thought

In this post, I discussed how synonyms can be used to avoid repetition and to add variety to your prose, but I also cautioned that too many synonyms can make your writing seem forced and juvenile. Nowhere is the need for this caution more evident than in dialogue tags.

If you have a moment, go take a look at these two stories on "The President's Brain is Missing" by John Scalzi, and "Firstborn" by Brandon Sanderson. Pay particular attention to the dialog tags in each story.

There are two general attitudes towards using synonyms in your dialog tags. The first is exemplified in Scalzi's story: although the story contains more dialog than Brandon Sanderson's, you might have noticed that the variety of dialog tags Scalzi used is much narrower than the variety Sanderson used. Many authors and editors prefer to use only a very few, basic dialog tags and let the dialog itself convey any necessary tone or subtleties. These authors pretty much restrict themselves to eight or so dialog tags:

"Dialog," he said.
"Dialog," she asked.
"Dialog," I replied.
"Dialog," it answered.
"Dialog," John continued.
"Dialog," Mary shouted.
"Dialog," they yelled.
"Dialog," we whispered.

These eight tags can conceivably cover a good ninety-five percent of the speaking situations that you'll put your characters into. For many editors and authors, any more variety in dialog tags than this will seem overdone and irritating.

As long as you're doing your best to follow my advice from this post, you will never go wrong using the tags I've listed above. They may seem boring or overly common, but almost no editors will be bothered by them.

The second school of thought is a little more liberal when it comes to the variety of tags they use, preferring to pick more precise and nuanced words for any given situation. For instance, the very first dialog tag in "Firstborn" was commanded, which was not on our earlier list. Here are some other tags you might see in the work of an author who belongs to this second school of thought:

"Dialog," he exclaimed.
"Dialog," she shrieked.
"Dialog," I mused.
"Dialog," it teased.
"Dialog," John grunted.
"Dialog," Mary hissed.
"Dialog," they growled.
"Dialog," he interjected.
"Dialog," she wondered.
"Dialog," I rasped.
"Dialog," it grumbled.
"Dialog," John pleaded.
"Dialog," Mary begged.
"Dialog," they began.
"Dialog," we gasped.
"Dialog," he responded.
"Dialog," she insisted.
"Dialog," I interrupted.
"Dialog," it cut in.
"Dialog," John acknowledged.
"Dialog," Mary sighed.
"Dialog," they breathed.
"Dialog," we cried.
"Dialog," he sobbed.
"Dialog," she added.
"Dialog," I mumbled.
"Dialog," it murmured.
"Dialog," John warned.
"Dialog," Mary cautioned.
"Dialog," they announced.
"Dialog," we wailed.
"Dialog," he commanded.
"Dialog," she ordered.
"Dialog," I muttered.
"Dialog," it demanded.
"Dialog," John noted.
"Dialog," Mary whimpered.
"Dialog," they bellowed.
"Dialog," we boomed.
"Dialog," he admitted.
"Dialog," she screamed.
"Dialog," I called.
"Dialog," John groaned.
"Dialog," Mary moaned.
"Dialog," they explained.
"Dialog," we scoffed.
"Dialog," he suggested.
"Dialog," she agreed.
"Dialog," I snapped.
"Dialog," it hollered.
"Dialog," John conceded.
"Dialog," Mary elaborated.

If you lean more toward the second school of thought, here are some cautions you need to consider:

Don't overuse synonyms: Although "Firstborn" did contain a larger variety of dialog tags, the vast majority of the tags in the story still came from our first list of basic tags.  Don't try to find an unusual word for your tag when said or replied would work just fine.

Make sure the word you choose fits the dialog: I've read many a manuscript where new authors misuse words from this second list. For instance, a character who has just been scolded might grumble in response or mumble in response. Which one you choose should depend on the character's attitude. Grumble carries a hint of aggression, of dissatisfaction and unhappiness, while mumble is more submissive. So if your character is not angry about being scolded, they should not be grumbling in response. If you're not sure that the word fits the situation perfectly, don't use it.

Whether you lean towards the first or second school of thought, there are some categories of tags that you should always avoid. Read about them here.

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