Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
2015 Writing Advice Series
Listen or Ignore (Part 1)
Weighing the Advice (Part 2)
Behind the Advice (Part 3)
What About -ing Words (Part 4)
Smiling or Laughing Dialogue
In one of my recent articles about writing advice, a reader posted this question/observation in a comment—
One last thing I wanted to mention: while I don’t use “he smiled” or “he laughed” as a dialogue tag, I never understand that advice saying that it’s impossible to do so. I do it all the time and see it done in my day-to-day life too. You can smile while saying something and you can laugh and distort the words by laughing them. I agree though that those dialogue tags are clunky . . .
Because the said/dialogue tag rule/advice/suggestion generates a lot of confusion and questions and pushback any time the subject is brought up—and I don’t mean only here at The Editor’s Blog, but everywhere—I thought I’d try opening up the discussion by looking at the issue in ways other than through the advice we typically see.
We typically see an all or nothing approach—
Use only said as a dialogue tag
Be creative and use any verb you want as a dialogue tag
Occasionally we get advice that promotes a situational approach—
Some genres allow for tags other than said, asked, whispered, and murmured
The occasional tag beyond said or asked is okay in any genre
But sometimes rules and suggestions simply aren’t helpful when there’s no explanation behind them or no expansion beyond the advice itself. Since we’ve been talking about looking deeper at the reasons behind writing advice (so far a two-part series), let’s do that specifically for dialogue tags and the said issue.
Rather than take recommendations about dialogue tags as prohibitions, consider them as suggestions for best practices. We all want to use what works for our stories and that often means what works best rather than what sort of works.
Let’s see if we can’t look at dialogue tags and said from a couple of angles you might not have considered.
The Mouth Does More Than Speak
It’s not that writers absolutely can’t use words other than said for dialogue tags—because they do use a wide variety of words for attributions—it’s more that they shouldn’t. Not if they want to keep readers inside the fiction. If readers are going to wonder why you claimed a character huffed or glowered or snickered his words, those readers are not lost in the fiction. They may, however, be lost to you.
Any time a reader stops his forward read of the text—he’s confused by word choice, by who’s doing what, by what’s actually happening—you risk pulling him out of the fictional world. When a reader has to figure out the meaning of words or punctuation, he’s no longer in the Boston of 1776 or the Paris of 1917 or the Mars of 2325. He’s instead in his own physical world holding a book or tablet, no longer chasing the murderer or meeting the girl or fighting off aliens.
I’m not saying that readers can’t adapt, because they do, of course they do. But how many times are you going to be the cause of the interruption? It’s bad enough when the kids come running in or the phone rings or we check the clock and find it’s 2 a.m. and the alarm is set for five.
Readers don’t need additional disruptions—there are enough surrounding them in their own worlds. There’s no reason for writers to cast them out of the fictional world again and again when with a tap of the keyboard the writer can erase the distractions.
One way to keep readers inside the fiction is to make word choices that fit, to not make choices that have readers laughing in the wrong place or wondering what you, the writer, were thinking—or drinking—when you chose a particular word.
A glower is a facial expression. Not only is it not a way to speak, but no sound is involved.
Imagine the look of a woman behind you at a coffee shop—the one jiggling her keys noisily—when you order a dozen special coffees, each with its own blend of ingredients, and then cancel the order and begin again when you realize you just gave the barista yesterday’s order, one from a completely different group of people than those awaiting today’s order. The look on the impatient woman’s face? That’s a glower. Or maybe a grimace. A glower has nothing to do with words—a glower is the look itself. Yes, the look speaks for itself. But no words are coming from the woman’s mouth.
Huffing and snickering, on the other hand, do create sounds, but they’re actions of the character, not a report of spoken words. The same is true for chuckling, chortling, belching, croaking, laughing, and barking. Even grinning and smiling, which don’t make sounds, are simply actions.
Characters can do these things, but these are actions separate from the action of the character speaking dialogue.
At this point, it may be helpful to consider other verbs and their actions and make comparisons.
Look at the following sentences. We don’t use the verbs in these sentences as dialogue tags, even though I’ve created the setup to do exactly that.
“And then the prince ran out after her,” she danced.
“How exciting,” Louisa clapped.
“But that’s not the best part,” Lana pedaled.
Lana can dance, but she doesn’t dance words. And she can pedal, but she pedals a bike, using her legs and feet, not her mouth. And while Louisa can clap with her hands, she doesn’t clap speech.
We understand this instinctively, that action verbs are not speech verbs, so it’s unlikely that such words would ever be used for dialogue tags. They’re simply actions, and we use them as such.
It’s when we conflate actions that can be achieved by the mouth and tongue (and maybe lungs and chest) with speech that the problems come in.
Just because the mouth is engaged is no reason to think that speech can be delivered via the action. Actions performed by the mouth and tongue are just like actions performed by other body parts—they are actions. They are not delivery modes for dialogue.
People smile and laugh and sing and trill. They bluster and blubber and burp. They hiccup and simper and whistle and sneeze. But these are actions of the character. Just because they are performed with the mouth, lips, and/or tongue doesn’t mean they produce words. We do much more with our mouths than speak.
We’d never use the dialogue tags I’ve suggested here—
“I love you,” he kissed.
“I love you more,” she tasted.
“No one could love more than I,” he licked.
We recognize that such verbs used as dialogue tags would be silly, but we’ve grown accustomed, at least to a degree, to smile and laugh and simper and groan being used as dialogue tags. But when you compare them to the three I just mentioned—kiss, taste, lick—there’s really no difference between them. Kissing and smiling are both actions that have nothing to do with speech. The vocal cords aren’t engaged for either action. The actions make use of the mouth, yes. But the mouth performs many actions that have nothing whatsoever to do with talking.
Listen to someone laugh—are they speaking or simply laughing or doing both? If they’re doing both, are they doing two actions or are they laughing words? I’m going to say they’re laughing and speaking—two distinct actions—not laughing words.
But aren’t there allowances for creative use of verbs? Of course. But if your creativity trumps believability, if it hampers a reader’s enjoyment rather than enhancing it, what have you gained? Nothing. You instead lose.
So be creative, but do so logically. As you wouldn’t use jump or wiggle or kiss as a dialogue tag, don’t use garble or gargle or gurgle. Don’t use smile or laugh or grin.
We can’t even hum words. We can hum a melody or a note or a song, but if we’re humming, we’re not speaking. And we don’t breathe words, though breathe is frequently used as a dialogue tag. But does that make sense? He breathed is the report of an action, not a dialogue tag.
Maybe the absurdity of using breathe as a tag is more easily seen when it’s paired with adverbs. While we’re often encouraged to limit the number of dialogue tags paired with adverbs, showing how nontraditional speech tags look with adverbs highlights their impracticality as tags.
“But I told you I didn’t do it,” he breathed heavily.
“Too bad you didn’t take care of him before he betrayed you,” she breathed threateningly.
“But I’m on your side,” she breathed passionately.
And a few others just for fun—
“I ran the last mile,” he panted breathlessly.
“B-but I c-couldn’t,” she hiccuped painfully.
“It’s your last chance,” he grinned maniacally.
The combinations sound rather silly, don’t they, with breathed and the other verbs used as the dialogue tag and paired with adverbs. The verbs used as verbs work. They work even with adverbs. But making a non-speech verb into a speech one doesn’t work. When we try it, we’re asking it to perform something it can’t do. At least not seamlessly or efficiently or without causing other problems.
Why use a dialogue tag—whose purpose is to identify the speaker—in a way that creates a problem? We’re trying to keep a story moving along. We don’t want any element to trip up the reader, so why would we purposely put an obstacle in front of the reader where she has no choice but to trip over it?
Is the risk of knocking the reader out of the fictional world, out of the fictional dream, worth using a verb that was never intended as a dialogue tag to show speech? We do everything we can to keep a reader inside the walls of our fictional universe, even to expanding those walls when necessary. So why run the risk of making the reader do a double take simply for the sake of combining speech with action when the two should remain separate? When the two can easily be written as discrete events?
That easy fix? Keep dialogue and actions separate. The following examples allow us to identify the speaker and include an action without giving the reader any reason to stutter or pause.
“But I told you I didn’t do it.” He breathed heavily, projecting earnestness into his voice.
“Too bad you didn’t take care of him before he betrayed you.” Her words—even her shallow breaths—sounded threatening.
“But I’m on your side.” She breathed passion into every word.
The super simple fixes? Split the action into a sentence of its own by changing the punctuation.
“I ran the last mile.” He panted breathlessly.
“B-but I c-couldn’t.” She hiccuped painfully.
“It’s your last chance.” He grinned maniacally.
Yes, you can smile while speaking, but you’re not smiling the words—you’re saying them. You’re smiling the smile and saying the words. You can walk and talk at the same time, but you’re not walking the words. You don’t smile or laugh words any more than you’d walk or kiss or tickle them.
Making Fiction Real
Something else to consider with dialogue tags in particular and fiction in general—
While we try to make fictional events, people, and worlds real, they are not. They are words on a page that stimulate the imagination in the brain. The events haven’t happened, nor are they happening now. And yet we write as if those events are playing out somewhere in some world.
Writers try to make the events seem real by using tricks that they and others have learned and perfected through the ages.
In movies and plays, we see characters in action. We hear their voices. We don’t need the playwright or a stagehand standing at the side of the stage yelling out, “Thomas is saying, ‘I love you.’ ” We don’t need to strap on headsets to listen to some narrator telling the story as a play unfolds on the stage.
With plays and movies, we get it all right in front of us. Well, we don’t get scents. And we, the audience, are not cavorting inside the setting, but we do get most everything else. We see and hear who’s doing what and when and often why.
In written fiction, however, we have to include guideposts for readers. We have to let them know who is saying what.
Yet to bolster the fiction, to make it as real as possible, we hide the mechanics and background elements as best we can. We don’t use different colors to point out the dialogue of different characters. We don’t blare a trumpet or shout out the identity of the speaker or the one doing the action—we simply point out who’s doing what.
As a playwright on the side of the stage or a voice whispering in your ear would interfere with and interrupt your enjoyment of a movie or play—would interfere with the very fragile walls, the boundaries, of the fictional world—so too would dialogue tags that do more than is necessary to identify a speaker. Readers need enough to distinguish one speaker from another, but they don’t need anything else from a dialogue tag. They don’t need writers to show off their knowledge of synonyms for said. They don’t need writers to show their faces or any traces of themselves at all.
The spoken words are the intended focal point of dialogue; they should draw the reader’s attention.
In a play, the actors who are speaking may be highlighted with a follow spot or they may move downstage where the playgoer can easily see them and know they’re the ones speaking even when they’re standing among a large group.
In a movie, the camera moves in on the couple whispering behind a locked door or focuses on the speaker through a close-up.
These are the methods that work on stage and in film. The audience sees who is speaking or knows who is shouting his dialogue from the wings because the audience just watched the character run off stage and understands he’s eavesdropping on the scene from a spot nearby.
Theatregoers understand the conventions of the craft. They may not know whodunit or how a story will turn out, but they know who’s saying what, even if what a character is saying is a lie.
Written fiction also has techniques and conventions that work. Using speech words such as said, asked, and even whispered are just as much convention as what works in the theatre or in movies. All are successful conventions. Each does its work without highlighting the fact that what’s happening is fiction. Each works instead to make the fictional less fictional. Each works to make real what isn’t real.
We write actions in ways that put readers in the center of them. This is showing at its most immediate, at its most intimate. We place events in settings and allow them to play out in real time with characters we treat as real people. Thus we have scenes rather than summaries. We need summary too, of course. Especially as we transition between locations or from one time to another. But we need the visual power of scenes. We get readers involved and make them anxious because it’s as if they’re standing in the midst of fights or arguments or life-changing moments.
To make dialogue seem real and ongoing, an integral part of a scene’s events, we include the spoken words and show the characters delivering those words. The less we “report,” the more we can show. Remember, we don’t want to be seen standing in the wings declaring who said what. We want to use the best option we have for identifying the speaker as he speaks. And the least intrusive, least confusing option is a clear notation of the name of the speaker (or pronoun) paired with a plain speech verb to create the dialogue tag. That’s all. Nothing extra. Nothing fancy. Nothing that has to be consciously noted or investigated or weighed or parsed by the reader. Nothing that pulls our attention from the ongoing action and dialogue.
Offering commentary on how a line of dialogue is delivered points to us—the writer, the man behind the curtain, the prompter on the side of the stage. When we do more than identify the speaker of dialogue, we risk inserting ourselves into the story.
Exceptions for stories in which narrators—not writers—actually do intrude to offer commentary.
In written fiction we have to identify speakers—that’s our only option. But the least obtrusive way is to simply say he said. Those words are nearly invisible. They are the standard convention. They allow the dialogue to speak for itself. They serve to hide the writer.
We’ll never be able to differentiate between speakers with words on a page in a way that visually shows the characters speaking, thus eliminating all need for dialogue tags. Written fiction is words, not moving images that need no help in identifying the speaker. But we can make the best of our limitations by using what has proven itself again and again—inconspicuous dialogue tags that don’t distract, that don’t add, that don’t confuse but which simply identify speakers.
Let’s consider one more way to look at dialogue tags.
Shorthand in Fiction
A type of shorthand for both writing in general and fiction in particular has developed over time, and symbols of this shorthand include punctuation, word order, verb tenses and conjugations, and yes, even the manner of relaying dialogue.
There are options. There is variety. But for the basics, why not use the clearest symbols and most successful shorthand tricks?
put a capital letter at the beginning of a sentence to show it is the beginning of a sentence
put new thoughts into a new paragraph
end a sentence with a period to signify it is the end
use apostrophes to show where letters have been dropped from contractions
enclose spoken words in quotation marks
use said as a dialogue tag to identify the speaker of the dialogue
Such “rules” aren’t meant to limit writers. They’re meant to make communication clear and easy and consistent. They help all of us, readers and writers, speak the same language.
Rules, especially this kind, aren’t intended as restrictions but are aids we can use to fashion strong and invisible foundations on which we can build fictional worlds where adventures play out freely atop the steady and unmoving surface.
There are plenty of places in stories where creativity enhances fiction and the quality of our writing. Yet there are other times and places in our writing where a boring standard—capital letters at the beginning of a sentence, period at the end—is more useful than any unique or creative option.
Maybe all it would take to settle this issue would be the acceptance of he/she/I said or asked as something akin to a punctuation rule. We don’t argue about ending a sentence with a terminal punctuation mark or beginning it with a capital letter. Consider treating dialogue tags in the same fashion.
Sentences usually end in a period, but there are allowances for question marks and exclamation points. There are no options, however, for ending sentences with commas, semicolons, colons, dashes or apostrophes. No allowances for not including some kind of terminal punctuation mark.
Maybe it’s time to treat dialogue tags like the ends of sentences, with standard rules and format, rather than as verbs for which we recommend variety. Maybe we recommend said for all dialogue tags, with allowances for a few other verbs that can be used for speech. At the same time, we would need to remind writers that not every line of dialogue even needs an attribution.
And before you ask, no, I don’t always recommend to my clients that they change every use of tags such as murmur or groan to said. Until the standard is a standard, there is leeway. As long as such leeway doesn’t get in the way of making the fictional real.
Thanks to the reader for the great comment that prompted this discussion.