Elements of Craft: The Syntactical Contortions of “Creative” Dialogue Tags

I would really, really, really, love it if people took to the habit of understanding the meaning of words before they used them. I know it’s a lot to ask, but bear with me anyway.

You want to get creative? That’s fine. Lots of ways to do that. Dialogue tags are, however, most definitely not the way to do it.

Who decided that “said” and “asked” and “whispered” and other clear, simple, useful tags needed to be replaced by “creative” tags like “moaned” and “laughed” and “smiled.”

Really? Who? Because we have to talk. We really do.

You’re setting a bad trend. And here’s why: Writers will go forth and use words that don’t mean what they’re trying to make them mean. Our language is already dying the death of a thousand cuts as certain factions contort words into near meaninglessness—it’s linguistic matricide (h/t Tom Kratman)—and while what I’m about to rant about doesn’t quite reach the level of insanity of making things mean whatever we want them to mean, each according to his or her own personal philosophy, well, folks, you’re not helping.

Why take speech tags that are almost invisible to readers (but still function as a valuable signpost for clarity), and turn them into blaring neon signs that take the focus off the dialogue, yank the reader out by the short hairs, and scream, “Look at me! I’m being so creative I’m ignoring what a word actually means! Love me, damn it!”

So, not only is it a pathetic attempt at “creativity,” it is distracting and annoying—two things your readers are NOT reading for. Yes, they’re reading for escape, for a distraction from the real world, but they’re not looking to be distracted from the story you’ve worked so hard to pull them into, by amateurish attempts to avoid the right word in favor of a substitution that’s sort of the same, but not really.

  • Example 1: “Oh, no, not that,” she giggled.

Go ahead and giggle while you’re saying “Oh, no, not that.” Go on. Send me a video file of it if you manage it.

Giggled (per dictionary.com) means “to laugh in a silly, often high-pitched way, especially with short, repeated gasps and titters, as from juvenile or ill-concealed amusement or nervous embarrassment.”

So, I can see why a writer might want to use the word giggled, to convey the meaning that the character’s laugh was silly, or that the amusement was ill-concealed or that she was nervous/embarrassed.

But the words “Oh, no, not that” don’t convey ANY of that. And if the words preceding it DO convey either silliness, or amusement, or embarrassment, then you don’t need to contort the physical action of speech into “giggling” because your reader will already KNOW what you mean, because you’ve done the work of showing them (and congratulations, if you did that work; it’s not easy, so good for you, you’re doing your job as a writer well and should be proud).

If on the other hand, you’ve NOT shown them, and are trying to TELL them via the use of the word “giggled” then you’re probably failing because the reader can’t know if you meant silly and/or high-pitched and/or repeated gasps and/or juvenile and/or ill-concealed and/or nervous and/or embarrassed. The word alone simply does not have that power. You’re misusing it on multiple levels.

Let’s add to our list of things that aren’t speech. Remember, now, a synonym means “a word having the same OR nearly the same meaning as another in the language.”

For giggled, the synonyms are: cackle, chuckle, guffaw, snicker, chortle, hee-haw, snigger, titter, twitter, and teehee.

So by the logic of anything goes if it’s a synonym (of said and other appropriate speech tags), we should be able to write:

  • Example 2: “Oh, no, not that,” she teeheed.

Again, send me a video of you saying “Oh, no, not that,” while you cackle, chuckle, guffaw, snicker, chortle, hee-haw, titter, twitter (no, tweeting on Twitter doesn’t count), or teehee.

The mouth is capable of a range of motions and sounds. But not all of those things are speech, any more than a facial expression is speech. It may be communication, but it’s not speech.

For example, a glower is a facial expression. No speech is involved, yet I’ve seen it used as a speech tag. Along with huffed, smiled, and ejaculated.

Yeah, really. Apparently this guy had some superpower that allowed him to ejaculate words. Now, if that gave you the same gross image that it gave me, congratulations!

Do you see what I mean now about being yanked out of the story?

Just because “giggled” doesn’t conjure up the same mental image as “ejaculated” it doesn’t make it a better choice for a dialogue tag, just one that’s not as gross.

If you’re still not convinced that you should stick to things that are actually physically possible, like said, asked, whispered, murmured, and shouted, then maybe approaching it from a different angle, a different train of logic, might.

  • Example 3: “Oh, no, not that,” she said, giggling.

Again, we have the same problem. She’s either speaking or she’s giggling. I suspect that many of these physically impossible dialogue tags actually started like this and then someone needed to reduce their word count or had some stupid algorithm tell him that the word “said” was being overused, and he decided to combine the two actions and cut his word count.

Verbs ending with “-ing” mean an action is in progress. For example, “Jan was giggling and jumping” tells us that Jan is doing two things at the same time. On the other hand, “Jan giggled and jumped” tells us that first she giggled, then she jumped. It IS possible to do two things at once, giggling and jumping, for example.

But there are some things that are impossible to do at the same time (like speak AND giggle), and writers seem to ignore this reality in favor of “creative” sentence structure as well as “creative” dialogue tags.

This is not just one aspiring writer’s pet peeve. The misuse of infinitive-verb phrases is rampant enough that John Gardner (The Art of Fiction) took the time to write about it at length and went so far as to call it “bad writing.”

“Sentences beginning with infinite-verb phrases are so common in bad writing that one is wise to treat them as guilty until proven innocent—sentences, that is, that begin with such phrases as “Looking up slowly from her sewing, Martha said …” or “Carrying the duck in his left hand, Henry …” In really bad writing, such introductory phrases regularly lead to shifts in temporal focus or to plain illogic. The bad writer tells us, for instance: “Firing the hired man and burning down his shack, Eloise drove into town.” (The sentence implies that the action of firing the hired man and burning down his shack and the action of driving into town are simultaneous.)”

Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction: Notes on Craft for Young Writers (Kindle Locations 1489-1493). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Here we have the same problem: plain illogic and implication of simultaneity where none can exist.

As Gardner explains, these kinds of “syntactical acrobatics” come from a writer’s attempt to get rid of something terrible, but instead of making it better, they end up making it worse.

They’ve made it different. They can no longer be accused of using “said” too much. And bonus! They can sneak in some telling and not have to work on showing. No wonder it appeals to so many. But different, isn’t necessarily better.

And change for the sake of change is no virtue either. Haven’t we learned that already?

There has to be a reason, a good reason, to abandon clarity and proven methods.

Gardner tells us that a properly used infinitive-verb start has its place—for example, when you DO want to slow down the action, as long as it meets the test of logic and physical possibility.

So how about dialogue tags?

When is it okay to make them stand out?

Formal speech is one reason. “…said Jake…” is more formal that “…Jake said…” and if you have a good reason to want for it to stand out to a reader, this construction does that subtly but powerfully.

How about “she cried”? Well, again, one definition of “cried” is “to utter inarticulate sounds” which implies it’s not a good dialogue tag since the sounds are inarticulate. But if by “cried” you mean (because the situation makes it clear) “to call loudly; shout; yell” then it would definitely work as a speech tag if that’s what’s going on.

Similarly, “she demanded” might be a legitimate dialogue tag, if the dialogue does not convey the demand. I honestly can’t think of an example where the combination of situation, dialogue, and physical beats can’t come together and show that something is a demand, but one might very well exist.

Same with “she replied.” It’s usually quite obvious that someone is replying to a question. So why waste words explaining something that’s obvious?

Why resort to syntactical contortions?

And does it really hurt to get a little creative and be different?

Well, yes, it does. Because once you throw out standards and clarity, anything goes.

The Speech Tags Wall of Shame*

“And then the prince ran out after her,” she danced.

Now maybe she was a tap-dancer and she was doing morse code with her shoes or something. I don’t know.

“How exciting,” Louisa clapped.

More morse-code perhaps? Maybe she has a clapper installed and is using it to send out messages. Who knows? Were these questions the things the writer was going for? Was the writer’s intent to distract the reader and kick him out of the story?

“But that’s not the best part,” Lana pedaled.

Yeah, here I am trying to figure this one out. And I’m pretty sure at this point I’m also wondering why I’m wasting my time reading this drivel. Obviously the writer is working extra hard to kick me out of the story and I’m going to oblige him by leaving. There’s what, a million books right at my finger tips, all competing for my money and attention.

Oh, but it gets worse.

“I love you,” he kissed.

“I love you more,” she tasted.

“No one could love more than I,” he licked.

Who else is ready to put that book down and take a shower? I know I am.

Okay, I’m back.

Yes, yes, I know, you’ve seen these creative dialogue tags in published fiction. Maybe they self-published and there was no one to edit them or their editor doesn’t know any better either (I highly recommend Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Second Edition: How to Edit Yourself Into Print for anyone who is self-publishing or who is editing).

Consider also that some authors (Stephenie Meyer, E.L. James) may be too famous to edit and probably got there on the strength of something else–something you don’t have.

Thing is, if you’re NOT famous enough for your name to carry a reader through an uphill battle against confusion, through being repeatedly yanked out of the story, through the pitfalls of the latest writing fad, you might consider this:

KISS—Keep It Simple, Stupid…

And pour your creativity into your world-building, your characters, your ideas instead. Radical thought, I know.

 

*courtesy of http://theeditorsblog.net/2015/03/30/smiling-or-laughing-dialogue-a-readers-question/