Wednesday, March 9, 2011

In defense of dialog tags

I'm going to throw a couple of caveats out there before I even get into my discussion/diatribe (yes, it's THAT incendiary):

1) I am not an editor
2) I am not an agent
3) Despite two years slogging through the slush pile at a local independent publisher, I am not a publishing professional
4) I am a great lover of the word

Okies, now that we've gotten those out of the way I can begin. I read a lot of advice on writing - blogs, articles, blog links to articles, article links to blogs, sometimes words printed on paper (I'm surprised they still exist), etc. I know all about show don't tell, adverb abuse, dialog tags, how to choose a tense, passive voice, and the sneaky over adjectivization. I have, at one point or another, flagrantly broken all of those rules and been reprimanded in one way or another by critique partners. I've done my time, learned my lessons, and moved on to what I hope is a cleaner, leaner, meaner way of writing (this present post aside). But there's a thought niggling at the back of my mind that I'd like to give voice to today, gentle readers, and I hope you'll hear me out in the spirit of a love of the word.

I. Like. Dialog tags. THERE. I said it. It's out there, or at least it will be when I hit Publish Post. I like the diversity of descriptions and the adverbs and the accompanying actions on dialog. I know the rule - only ever use he said she said they said we said I said and never never NEVER say how they said it - but I don't like it. Because as a lover of the word, I enjoy a good adverb here and there. I enjoy knowing if a character whispered or shouted or grunted their lines.

Yes, I know the reason for the rule. There was widespread abuse among the greener of us, and every single line of dialog was weighted down with adverbs galore and a bizarre mesh of descriptive verbs ("Festivus is totally the best holiday," he proselytized.). I know it was a push toward cleaner writing that didn't fog up the window with unnecessary words and instead polished the glass to a high shine so the reader could look through the words without looking at them. It's about the actual dialog, not the description of how it's being said. I get it. Really.

But I've had it drilled into my head from so many places and people that my fingers tremble every time they they reach for the l and y keys. I gnaw my lip whenever I decide to let a character growl something instead of just saying it. And the truth is, I do it because I'm used to seeing it in other writing. I'm used to a more flowery approach to prose that may or may not come from years of reading romance novels. My fear is that this incessant push toward abolishing adverbs from published works will mean I'll never get to read about someone saying something quietly or politely. Like all things, I believe there's a time and a place for such descriptions.

So every once in a while, I let my characters say something glibly, or shoot back a witty remark. But only every once in a while. I promise.

What about you? How do you feel about excess description in dialog tags? Are you an abuser or a law upholder when it comes to dialog tags?


Libby said...

I'm a big believer in moderation. I use adverbs, maybe too many, then try to go back and make the writing cleaner.

L. said...

I think that adverbalization (hah!) is a symptom of insufficient vocabulary (ought to be classified as a nutritional disorder for writers...)

I can wax more scientific upon request, for amusement value. :)

Seriously, though, if you need more than one adverb you need a better verb.

At the same time, I do believe that there is more to dialogue than 'said'. Proceed with caution, though.

Tere Kirkland said...

My first drafts are rife with people spitting out their words, but I tend to tone it down during editing, or add more "beats", or some other kind of description instead.

I try to remind myself that the reader isn't dumb, and can tell when my characters are arguing without me saying, "he argued."

Lynn Colt said...

I think dialogue tags are like anything else in writing: they have to be used well. Sometimes it's too much, but I find an excessive avoidance of tags to be as irritating as using too much description in them!

I try to strike a balance :)

Lola Sharp said...

Well, you know the rules and the why's of the rules. So if you have a valid reason to break them, it's your ms.

I'm a proponent of less is more with tags.


Dianne K. Salerni said...

I am SO with you on this!! You are right: The "rule" came about because dialogue tags are misused in poor writing. So, in an attempt to give constructive criticism, editors and agents suggested not using them. Which then became a RULE.

I hate rules in writing.

If you write WELL, you can use dialogue tags any way you want.

And if you write WELL, you can also use adverbs.

However ... that said ... if I need to reduce word count in my manuscript, dialogue tags and adverbs ARE the first things I cut.

Christine Tyler said...

I like 'em. "He said/she said" is distracting to me. I use them now, because I've learned better, but really, secretly...I resent it :P

Margo Berendsen said...

I am laughing because I was just thinking about this too, about how I tend to overuse -lys in my blog posts because at least THERE i can GET AWAY WITH IT and HAVE FUN with it without critiquers spouting off at me!!