Here’s the third part in Randy Ingermanson’s series on dialog:
If you like this info, check out his novel writing materials.
In the last two issues, I talked about why dialogue is
not like “real conversation” and about what makes good
dialogue. In both cases, it boils down to conflict.
“Real conversation” either lacks conflict or it lacks
the right kind of conflict. Good dialogue has
conflict — lots of it — and the right kind.
Let’s switch gears this month and talk about dialogue
tags. The trend for a good number of years now has been
to eliminate them, trim them, or change them to action
tags. Anything to get rid of that boring “Sally said”
at the end of a line.
Remember that you could do a whole lot worse than
“Sally said.” If you ever read those corny Arrow Joke
Books when you were a kid, you’ll remember Tom
Swifties. If you never heard of a Tom Swifty, let me
introduce you now, you poor naive thing, you. There are
two kinds, the strong kind and the weak kind.
Some examples of strong Tom Swifties:
“I’m a plumber!” he piped.
“I killed the rooster!” she crowed.
“More air on the fire!” he bellowed.
You get the idea. The dialogue tag is a verb other than
“said” which somehow fits the thing being said.
Weak Tom Swifties are easier because they replace the
verb with an adverb. Some examples:
“I’m a stonemason,” he said archly.
“Your son has the measles,” she said feverishly.
“These fries are just right,” he said crisply.
The possibilities for wretched dialogue are limitless.
So many adverbs, so little time!
In modern fiction, it’s considered bad form to use
adverbs in your dialogue tags.
Why are adverbs considered a no-no? (Randy asked
Simple. Adverbs are telling. Good fiction is showing.
I’ll pick on Tom Clancy just once more this month and
then give the poor guy a break so his sales recover.
Tom is famous for lines like this one:
“That dirty, filthy, rotten son of a b****,” Jack said
Well, duh. Yes, Jack is furious here. The dialogue
shows it, so why insult the reader’s feeble little
intellect by telling it?
I suppose a worse crime would be this (which I have
never seen in a Clancy novel):
“That showed poor manners,” Jack said furiously.
Now we’ve got the dialogue showing Jack’s restraint and
then the adverb telling us that he’s furious —
entirely at odds with what we just saw. The reader will
generally believe what she saw and will ignore the
adverb, or worse, will disrespect the writer’s
In any event, the important thing to remember is that
adverbs need to be tossed in the toilet. (Mildred said,
flushing at the impropriety of it all.)
But adverbs aren’t the only crime against humanity.
It’s also considered bad practice to use any verb other
than “said” or “asked” in a dialogue tag. You’ve
probably read books where the author was scared to
death to use “said” or any of its synonyms more than
once per page. So you get dialogues that look like
this little abomination:
“Why are you late again?” Bossbert asked.
“What makes you think I’m late?” Dilbert queried. “By
Hawaii time, I’m early.”
“Go help Wally,” Bossbert snarled. “He’s behind again.”
“Where is he?” Dilbert questioned.
“How should I know?” Bossbert interrogated. “Just find
“OK, OK, no need to get huffy,” Dilbert stated.
“Alice has the design documents,” Bossbert informed.
“Dilbert, help us get Wally out of the trash
compactor!” Asok requested.
“This place is a zoo,” Bossbert spluttered.
The longer this kind of thing goes on, the more the
reader gets distracted by the increasingly imaginative
synonyms for “said” and “asked.” And you don’t want to
distract your reader from the conflict of the story.
Novice writers always object at this point that it’s
boring to keep using “said” all the way down the page.
Yes, it’s boring. You have two alternatives. First, you
can get rid of the tag altogether. If you read John
Grisham much, you’ll have noticed that in one-on-one
dialogues, he rarely uses “said” or any of its synonyms
at all. He lets the character’s voices tell us who’s
When you’ve got three or more characters in a dialogue,
that’s harder to do (but still possible if they have
distinctive voices). However, you can always use action
tags. An action tag eliminates the “Sally said” and
adds a new sentence with Sally DOING something. This
breaks up the dialogue and gives the reader something
to look at — always important to the video generation.
Let’s look at Dilbert and Bossbert again, this time
with action tags. It’s still a dumb dialogue, but it’s
a bit more interesting:
“Why are you late again?” Bossbert leaned back in his
chair and twirled his pointy hair with his pudgy
Dilbert tried again to make his tie lie flat against
his shirt. “What makes you think I’m late? By Hawaii
time, I’m early.”
“Go help Wally.” Bossbert bit into a donut. Jelly ran
down his fingers onto the carpet. “He’s behind again.”
“Where is he?”
Bossbert shrugged. “How should I know? Just find him!”
“OK, OK, no need to get huffy.” Dilbert tossed his
briefcase into his cubicle, grabbed his coffee cup, and
scurried down the hall.
“Alice has the design documents.” Bossbert padded along
Asok the intern raced out of the coffee room. “Dilbert,
help us get Wally out of the trash compactor!”
Bossbert whacked his hand against his pointy hair.
“This place is a zoo.”
We draw this bizarre scene to a merciful close. By
getting rid of all the “said” words, we’ve put the
scene in motion.
But that’s not enough. There’s still something missing
to turn this into real dialogue. We’ll look at that
Award-winning novelist Randy Ingermanson, “the Snowflake Guy,” publishes the Advanced Fiction Writing E-zine, with more than 5000 readers, every month. If you want to learn the craft and marketing of fiction, make your writing more valuable to editors, and have FUN doing it, visit
http://www.AdvancedFictionWriting.com. Download your free Special Report on Tiger Marketing and get a free 5-Day Course in How To Publish a Novel.