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Smiling or Laughing Dialogue—A Reader’s Question

March 30, 2015 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill
last modified September 11, 2016

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)

Related Articles

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.

An example

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.

For more on dialogue tags, see Use and Misuse of Dialogue Tags and Another Take on Dialogue Tags.



Tags: , ,     Posted in: A Reader Asks..., Grammar & Punctuation

34 Responses to “Smiling or Laughing Dialogue—A Reader’s Question”

  1. Catherine says:

    Wow, thank you so much for exploring the subject so thoroughly. I understand now why you can’t smile or laugh a dialogue. I never thought of it that way.

    “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.”

    That’s actually the best explanation I’ve heard on the subject.

    I don’t mean to be controversial, but could it be that conventions like this are like fashions? I read a lot of French literature and especially in the 19th they seemed to favor very colorful dialogue tags. They scream, they exclaim, they say while smiling, they add, they speak again… There’s even the dialogue tag “fit” in French that implies action, not dialogue. Those are still not the norm and *he said* is still the go to dialogue tag, but did we change our taste overtime? Or was is maybe just a French thing a while back? I should look into this some more.

    It certainly clears a lot of fog for me and helps me understand the true purpose of dialogue tags. Thanks so much for taking the time to make an article about this!

    • Glad to have been of help, Catherine.

      And yes, conventions can definitely be like fashions. Writers did use dialogue tags, and the adverbs to modify them, much differently in the past than we do today. Are you familiar with the opening four lines from Little Women?

      “Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

      “It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

      “I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added little Amy, with an injured sniff.

      “We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

      Alcott no doubt used the words she chose as a means of quickly painting a picture of the girls. If you keep reading, however, you see that she used a lot of different tags throughout her story as well as simply a great number of tags. The style is definitely different today, even though in reality there are many styles in use today.

      And this is true not only with dialogue tags but with adverbs, commas, points of view, and the amount of description and detail.

      Yes, our tastes have changed. And so have our styles of entertainment. Novels have certainly followed trends in other media—how could they not? And even when they haven’t exactly followed, the writers have to have been influenced by not only the entertainment world but by technology and the way communications are carried out.

      Our world is very different from the worlds of Austen and Alcott, Twain and Dickens. Different even from the writers of the last century. And those at the end of the 20th century lived in, wrote in, a world different from that of those who wrote early in the century.

      But reading—and writing—good fiction is still wonderful.

  2. Rebel Miller says:

    Such a great article! Thank you for another great post.

    “This site has become my favorite go-to resource,” I said with a wink.

  3. Likewise, I thoroughly enjoyed this article.

    Stephen King, in his book On Writing, echoes your sentiments. He’s all about using said, and keeping it clean and simple. After reading his bit on it, I started noticing adverb usage in dialogue tags, and realized how distracting they are.

    • Adverbs can be distracting, can’t they? While an adverb may be perfect in one sentence, they can prove annoying in dialogue tags, especially if they’re particularly noticeable.

      • Beedoo! says:

        That’s the thing, isn’t it? If you use them too much, they really stick out like sore thumbs. Same goes for using “said” too much… too much of the same, and it starts to grate on your senses. Moderation in all things! (I’m even getting sick of repeating “too much” so ofte in this post!)

  4. Renée says:

    This article was exactly what I needed today. I’m editing a manuscript that has characters constantly nodding and grinning and laughing as dialogue tags. It’s rather maniacal. My choice may or may not infuriate the author, but either way, I will direct them to this post as backup for my choices. Thank you!

  5. So let’s say I’ve use the two following examples:

    “God, no!” screamed Caroline, throwing her hands up in front of her face in an attempt to shield herself from the immanent collision.

    “CAROLINE!” I cried out, as I strained with all my might to reach her.

    Am I using the words screamed and cried wrong in both those situations?

    If I am, how would I indicate clearly and properly show that the characters are “screaming” and “crying out”?

    It seems that using “I said” would be a bit strange in such emotionally charged circumstances, even if I followed it with a bit more description, like:

    “God, no!, she said, screaming.”


    “CAROLINE!” I said, crying out loud.”

    Any tips?


  6. Grace says:


    You’re not using “screamed” and “cried out” inappropriately in your first examples, but I think it would strengthen your prose to leave them out, as dialogue tags remind readers that they’re reading a story, and the exclamation point already conveys that the speakers are emphatic. Consider:

    “God, no!” Caroline threw her hands up in front of her face, trying to shield herself from the collision she feared was imminent.

    “CAROLINE!” I strained with all my might to reach her.

    • Perfect suggestions, Grace. You’re right on when you say that some words and punctuation underline the fact that the reader is reading. Often we don’t want to be told something. We want to simply watch it unfold in front of us, no commentary involved.

      • Steve Lowe says:

        Hmmm… I really have to say that I have immense problems with both the basic old chestnut of ‘show versus tell’ and this modern fad of a ‘writing-rule’ that we should only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag. And both those two culprits – which I consider to be responsible for the ‘de-literating’ of modern popular fiction – seem to be conspiring together in this topic.

        I’ve previously dealt with the question of ‘said versus more expressive/descriptive/imaginative dialogue tags earlier last year, and why the rule makes no sense to me. But here’s a recap: As a writer, your job is to communicate information to the reader. Period. That’s what writing was invented for (I mean, what else is it good for?) And so, surely, the more information any writer can supply to their readers, the better. And if you can demonstrate to the reader the ‘way’ in which a character in your story is speaking, then that is surely better than simply a bland description of what is being said. Thus, a more descriptive dialogue tag will always describe the expression on a character’s face, or the loudness/softness of their voice, or the feelings in their heart, more adequately than a simple, bald statement that they ‘said’ something.

        And bear in mind that there are also other, competing, writing rules lurking out there in ‘editorial consultant land’, just waiting to ensnare & trip us up. Such as ‘omit unnecessary words’ for example (which we dealt with recently in connection with that old charlatan Strunk).
        Well, if anyone actually places any value in what Strunk said, then surely, using a more descriptive dialogue tag is a far more succinct, economical, less ‘wordy’ way of describing the way a character is speaking than would be the default dialogue tag ‘said’ followed by a stream of description about the expression on the character’s face, how they’re waving their arms, what’s going on in their head which might then be necessitated by the lack of any description in the dialogue tag?

        And then we come to the question of ‘show versus tell’ again. Beth, you say: “Often we don’t want to be *told* something. We want to simply watch it unfold in front of us, no commentary involved.” But at its most fundamental, everything a writer does is ‘telling’, since that’s what we all do: You ‘tell’ a story; you don’t ‘show’ a story. (Okay, when was the last time anyone on this list heard someone say: ‘I’m going to show you a story’?)

        And in the context of dialogue-tags, I fail to understand how it’s any more or less ‘telling’/’showing’ to use a simple, one-word descriptive dialogue-tag to explain a character’s emotions to the reader rather than to combine the mind-numbingly dull ‘said’ with a subsequent slew of description about how the character is contorting their face, waving their arms, stamping their feet etc. Surely, such an alternative slew of description is the *real* example of ‘telling’ (or exposition or whatever you want to call it) here; whereas, a more descriptive choice of dialogue tag is the ‘hero’ of the piece – and could even be described as ‘showing’, in this case, since it can give the reader all that description with just a single word!

        Speaking personally, I have no problem, whatsoever, with any or all of the more descriptive dialogue tags that any of the rest of you want to use in your own writing, indeed I welcome them. In fact, the one thing that’s most likely to make me put your book down again and walk out of a book store without buying after only reading the first few pages is if you unimaginatively & rigidly stick to hitting me over the head with ‘said, said, said’ a dozen times a page (and several thousand times a book)! So there… you have all been warned :-)

        And to end with, I’d like to remind everyone that – despite how we are all brow-beaten with this “only use ‘show’ as a dialogue tag” rule – my own limited survey of the dialogue tags used in modern best-selling novels (posted here earlier last year) demonstrated that the vast majority of modern best-selling authors do not use it! In fact, most of them seem to use a wide and healthy variety of more descriptive dialogue-tags (including ‘said’). So what does that tell us all about the ‘advice’ we’re being given by the ‘Strunk et al.’ school of creative writing tutors? :-)

        • Beedoo! says:

          Yes, god…THIS. If we’re going for brevity to move the story along, using “said” and then following it up with a description seems to come across as overly wordy and ham-handed. It’s not all or nothing with writing style, and variation comes across much more natural than trying to go all one way or the other. What the original author terms as “silly,” I find much more informative, brief, and natural than “said + adverbial phrase”. The words become more loaded, more connotative, more powerful when you’re not bogging them down with side-description.

          • Steve Lowe says:

            Hi Beedoo! Well, thanks for the endorsement :-)

            And I’ll agree with the general principle you espoused, above, about: ‘Moderation in all things.’ (I think that was what the ancient Greek philosophers preached, in order to avoid the worst excesses.)

            Speaking personally, the last editorial consultant I tried working with here in the UK went through the first six chapters (~70 pages) of my current novel, deleting every single dialogue tag (regardless of context) replacing them with ‘said’. (It’s okay, there was no lasting damage done, as I’d only sent her a Word attachment copy to play with, not the original :-)

            When I asked her why, she just quoted the (now, sadly, seemingly universal) ‘writing rule’ about only using ‘said’…’because you don’t want to distract the reader/take them out of the story/alert them to the presence of the author’ (blah, blah, blah). So we had a brief ‘tete-a-tete’, during which I explained to her pretty much what I said above (which you kindly agreed with) and then I put them all back in :-)

            I don’t know if you caught it, but I quoted a short survey on this list(last year) where I randomly chose a range of modern (best-selling-ish) traditionally published novels & listed the dialogue tags they each used from the first 5 pages. I wanted to see if this “only use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag” rule has any bearing in reality. The results were extremely illuminating. Out of the survey of over a dozen authors, only one (Martin Amis) stuck rigidly to this rule, with absolutely all the others employing a wide & healthy variety of dialogue tags (including ‘said’). Indeed, I believe I actually use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag in my own recent novel (at least once, and maybe even twice) – but that was only when I couldn’t think of a better one to use, because there was no particular emotion being displayed by the characters in that scene :-)

            Yet – unfortunately – with all these spurious ‘writing rules’ being so arbitrarily & despotically applied universally throughout the modern ‘traditional’ publishing industry (at least, for aspiring authors) it probably won’t make a hill of bean’s worth of difference however many of us may agree to differ from the ‘received wisdom’… it still won’t help any of us get published the traditional way.

            I’m reconciled to probably having to go down the ‘self-publishing’ route; but then, thank God that option is actually available to us these days. And anyway, even editors working for traditional publishing houses have resorted to ‘self-publishing’ their own first novels, simply because (from their insider’s perspective) they know they can get their novel published quicker, cheaper & by having to put up with less of the non-sensical c**p than anyone beating their head against a brick wall with the traditional publishing industry :-)


          • Beedoo! says:

            Steve, that sounds like a particularly stifling editor. I mean, that’s your personal style choices she just siphoned out. If you’re anything like me, you may have sat there for an hour agonizing about the word choice, only to have it replaced by, “Nope, it’s ‘said’.” Ugh. I hope you can find another editor/publisher more suited to you… I’ve been told recently that while self-publishing may be easier, you are probably going to lose out, because you’ll be stuck doing your own marketing, whereas your publisher will know better where to advertise your work. (Just so you’re aware of that when making your choice.)

  7. FFJ says:

    @Kirk Johnston, I have to agree with @Grace’s suggested edits. They make for much stronger writing IMO.

    Thanks Beth for providing such thorough advice.

  8. Phil Huston says:

    Famous dead and alive authors who write “tips” at some point in their careers bought into the “said” rule, and completely disregarded it in their own tomes. I got so tired, personally, of the tag wars that I shifted to descriptive body language. Or, as in the examples above, screamed works. She was screaming by now. “You’re as useless as a steakhouse in a vegan commune!” Or she screamed. Or even deeper description of standing or leaning or beating on the top of the car and screamed or screaming.
    Some scenes require more environmental depth, some less. It’s easy to make dialogue pop with less, more difficult to slow it down. Tags and descriptive so have as much to do with timing as they do with “tagging.”
    Whether we like it or not we are dealing with a short read, media impacted quick cut audience. Dropping words and tags isn’t the answer. The answer is the correct “excess” language, not the quantity. Flash fiction and all that surrounds it may be a fad, may be a trend, may be the future.
    The story is what’s important. What tells your story is important. Shakespeare had no dialogue tags, romance novels are sewn together like summer camp moccasins with them. Use what you need to tell your story. If it reads like a train wreck, thin it out or fatten it up until the seams all fit together. The best advice is listen to your story until it’s as close to being told your way then ask. He said.

  9. Steve Lowe says:

    Phil makes an interesting point about established authors maybe pushing the ‘said’ rule, but then completely disregarding it in their own works. Which underlines the pointlessness – even the active counter-productiveness – of many of these so-called ‘writing rules’. For if modern best-selling authors write (or don’t write) in certain ways, then who are they – or any commentators on creative writing – to tell the rest of us to write differently? I mean, isn’t the entire point of there being a writing style which best-selling authors typically use that it’s an example of how the rest of us should write if we want to get published? Yet so much of the (un)helpful advice I’ve been given by editorial consultants amounts to the message: ‘Don’t write as I/we/best-selling authors write, write as we say!’

    It reminds me of Stephen Pinker’s comment in his recent book: ‘The Sense of Style’ on that old rogue Strunk: So sparse was his message that he’d apparently pad-out his lectures by repeating each ‘writing rule’ three times. E.G. He’d lean on his lectern and repeat: “Omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words, omit unnecessary words!” Which might actually sound comically contradictory if that ‘rule’ hadn’t had such a destructive effect on the quality of much of modern popular fiction :-)

    And to come back to the way many of these wacky ‘rules’ end up contradicting each other, if you stubbornly stick to the ‘only use said as a dialogue tag’ rule, then that will result in you breaking that other rule about ‘not repeating certain words’! Surely, that’s as good a reason as any for dumping the ‘only use said’ rule (with the resultant appearance of ‘said’ a dozen times a page and God knows how many thousand times a book) and the adoption of a more varied vocabulary for your dialogue tags?

    Phil is right, of course, that Shakespeare had no dialogue tags. But then, Shakespeare was writing plays. And by definition, each line of dialogue was preceded (at least, in the script) by the name of the character speaking the line. Which, of course, obviates the need for dialogue tags. And it’s then up to the actors to convey the emotion and physical aspect of the characters doing the speaking. But for all of us writing novels, we not only have to clue the reader into which character is speaking at each moment in time (hence, the need for dialogue tags) but we have to convey the emotion and aspect of the character to the reader in the absence of an actor to do it for us. Which – if you ask me – is why there is such a vital need to employ more descriptive dialogue tags in novels, and why ‘said’ (on its own, and without any subordinate exposition) just won’t cut the mustard!

    The story IS what’s important, and we ought – all of us – to be using all the varied and wonderful vocabulary which the English language affords us to get that story across. And if a well-chosen dialogue tag can express all the emotion and aspect of the finest stage actor – but on the written page, and within a single word! – then that’s not only a better read for our customers, but it helps us to avoid the pitfalls of those other ‘writing rules’, such as: ‘omit unnecessary words’ and ‘don’t repeat the same words all the time’ :-)

    But then, I was trained as a scientist, not an artist, and so maybe that’s why I can pick holes in ‘rules’ that make no sense to begin with and which end up contradicting each other anyway…


  10. Katie says:

    Regarding speaker attributions / actions before the dialogue; I know you said it is best used when you want to emphasize the attribution. The question is whether to use a comma v. semicolon v. period before the dialogue, especially with verbs that can’t technically express words:

    “I’m going too.” She decreed, then added with a wink, “And you can’t stop me.”


  11. Brent says:

    Hmm. With all due respect, I have to vigorously disagree with the basic premise of this piece. While I agree that some verbs should not be used as tags to express dialogue, many of them (laugh, scoff, groan, sigh, smile, etc.) are perfectly acceptable in my mind (and imagination) because they DO suggest the tone of the speaker’s words and voice. Besides which, people do speak and groan (or sigh or whatever) simultaneously. For example:

    “But Mom!” he groaned.

    “Ok,” she sighed. “I’ll do it.”

    “Idiot,” he scoffed as he looked away.

    “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he laughed, his words coming out in sputters and gasps.

    Any of the above could be imagined as they are written, as words that are spoken as a groan, as a sigh, etc.

  12. Beedoo! says:

    Just by the by, author… it’s vocal cords, not chords; actual tendons and ligaments that operate the larynx, as opposed to a cluster of musical notes.

  13. Phil Huston says:

    Well, since it came back up, like a burrito from a turquoise, repurposed 1920 gas station, “said” has the entertainment IQ of pavement. No. Really. I don’t know about dialogue tags and adverbs and qualifiers or modifiers or deep fat fryers. But I do know “said” sucks. dialogue, and/or adequate narrative should carry a scene, top to bottom. I have listened and paid and put up with a number of variations on the dialogue tag theme from said only to romance novel dialogue that drips with four more lines of descriptive. Yuk. On both counts. Timing. Read it aloud. If guffaw or belch or snort waste time, drop them. If smiled buys you time, use it. Not as “Bite me!” he smiled. But isn’t something like this:

    He smiled, hit the elevator button with his elbow, tried not to slosh the two huge, frozen ‘ritas.. “Your dialog, your story, your tab and your floor makes it your call.”
    She took his arm when the elevator dinged, pulled him across the threshold. “Were you born full of *stuff* or do you practice?”
    “Part of my charm. You know, the mystery?”
    She caught the look.
    “Jee-zus. It’s practice. If you’d shown up this way your mother would have thrown you to the wolves before you got hungry the second time.”

    No said, no tags, two people waiting on an elevator and an editor, with a clue. Like Beth. Thanks.

    • Steve Lowe says:

      Hi Beedoo!

      (I’m having to add a general comment, as there was no tab available, above, to reply to your last message.)

      Thanks for the sympathy, but my last editorial consultant was my third in a row pushing the same advice, so I’ve given-up on them :-)

      However, on the subject of self-publishing, it’s not all the same as the ‘vanity publishing’ of old, any more. There are many companies which can offer you a complete package, including the marketing (even providing each author with their own tailor-made website for doing that). Coupled with that, the revolution in ‘Print on demand’ has made self-publishing commercially viable, as there are no overheads like paying for initial print-runs or warehousing etc. The ‘industry insider’ I mentioned, above, is Kent Anderson (who writes under the name ‘Andrew Kent’). There’s an article by him that might interest you (and others) on the ‘Self Publishing Review’ website (with an extensive ‘comments’ section at the end, a bit like this one :-) The link is too long to post, and there doesn’t seem to be a ‘search’ function within the site. However, if you google using the search words: ‘a publishing person self publishes kent anderson’, the article should come up as the first ‘hit’.

      It would be nice if we could all go down this route (so long as we had the money :-)


  14. Steve Lowe says:

    I’ve just discovered the greatest quote ever on the subject of creative-writing from Somerset Maugham, which just about says it all about those draconian modern ‘writing rules’:

    “There are three rules for writing a novel. Unfortunately, nobody knows what they are.” LOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOLOL In your face, Elmore Leonard & Stephen King!

    Which works well in conjunction with Claude Debussy’s:

    “Works of art make rules; rules don’t make works of art.”

    I just wonder when the emperors of publishing are finally going to start looking in the mirror and realize the obvious about themselves…


  15. A great discussion here. I have nothing to add at the moment. As you were.

    • stevelowe says:

      On a humorous note, just thinking of the phrase: ‘As you were…’, that reminds me of a sketch in the BBC radio comedy ‘The Goon Show’ from the 1950s (not that I’m that old, of course, but I have some of the recordings). Colonel Dennis Bloodnock (a notorious coward, drunk & lothario) is addressing his troops, and says:

      “As you were, men… er… I presume you *were* all men before you joined the army? Oh well, never mind about that now” :-)