Tag Archives: dialogue tags

Nothing Exceeds Like Excess: The Irritating Art of Exaggeration

Over the virtual water cooler of Facebook, my editor friends and I sometimes discuss irksome little things we frequently come across in manuscripts, and I’ve noticed one thing that comes up a lot. Writers take note: if you happen to feel like irritating editors, one of the best ways to go about it is to be overly dramatic and exaggerate in some fashion. Unsubtlety in your writing can take many forms, many of which are dead easy to pull off and have nothing to do with actual word choice.

Take punctuation, for example, which is probably the simplest tool for exaggeration at your disposal. Many writers make a habit of using more than one exclamation mark. They think that to do so automatically makes what they have to say that much more exciting!!! Why use one exclamation mark when you can use two (or even three)? Two exclamation marks will surely make what you’ve written twice as thrilling, won’t they? Well, you probably already know what my response to that is. Use just one. I really must insist. And for heaven’s sake, if you have dialogue, don’t punctuate it with an exclamation mark and then add the dialogue tag, “he exclaimed.” To do so is redundant, because we know he’s exclaiming from the exclamation mark.

But multiple exclamation marks aren’t the only type of punctuational (if I may say that) excess. To convey extreme, possibly life-threatening astonishment from which we are unlikely to recover, many writers use something popularly known as the interrobang, which looks like this: ?! You might use it in a sentence such as the following: “Seriously, can you really believe that Caroline is dissing the interrobang?!” Yes, I am dissing it, for it is not something that serious writers ought to use. It is not even a standard punctuation mark. Use it in your social networking if you feel you really must (but please don’t tell me that you did).

Another form of excess that must be avoided is too much capitalization. Have you ever noticed how some Writers attempt to give their Precious Words a sort of Earth-Shattering Significance by capitalizing them? Need I say more? The effect is generally pompous at best. Unless you’re a pompous individual and would like to advertise that fact, don’t capitalize to excess. Capitalize only those words that really need it by virtue of their being accepted proper nouns.

Similarly, don’t shout in your writing, as shouting quickly becomes wearisome to those on the receiving end (your readers). Think of an obnoxious drunk person yelling at you repeatedly and you’ll get the idea. Shouting in writing takes a couple of different forms–namely using all CAPITAL LETTERS or bold typeANDTHESE SHOULD NEVER, EVER BE USED IN COMBINATION, ESPECIALLY WITH TOO MANY EXCLAMATION MARKS–OR INTERROBANGS!! DID YOU HEAR ME?

If you wish to emphasize something, you can do so in an understated, tasteful way by using italics. But always use them with a light hand, saving them for when you really need them. For one thing, they are more difficult to read than regular Roman text. And when you give added emphasis to too many things in your writing, not much of anything seems important after a while. As well, the reader tends to either get tired or develop a migraine, and you don’t really want to be responsible for that.

Do your readers–and editor, for that matter–an enormous favour by sparing them the above excesses. Trust me, they will thank you for your consideration.

Dialogue Tags: The Perils of Spitting and Hissing

For the uninitiated, dialogue tags (or speaker attributions) are those words that accompany dialogue to identify a speaker–like “Oscar said” and “Lucinda asked.” When handled well, they pleasantly and unobtrusively do their job of telling the reader who said what. And that is all they’re required to do.

If you read about how to craft good fiction, you’ll discover that the prevailing wisdom these days indicates that you use the most invisible verb possible in dialogue tags. And for the people in the know, such as Renni Browne and Dave King, authors of the marvellously useful book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, the verb of choice for dialogue tags is said.

You may scoff. Isn’t said a little boring? Won’t a page full of them lull readers to sleep?  With so many delicious verbs in the English language to choose from, why is it not considered appropriate to fling them around with wild abandon while writing your dialogue tags? Why shouldn’t your characters hiss, spit, squeak, roar, growl, shriek, sneer, grunt, laugh, smile, chuckle, grimace, breathe, tease, or scoff their way through their dialogue if you damn well want them to? (Or, in cases where you feel they’ve taken over your book, if they damn well want to?)

There are good reasons for not succumbing to the allure of using colourful dialogue tags. The first is that they’re a distraction from what your characters are actually saying. When you accompany your dialogue with “Gerald spat” and “Valerie squeaked,” it’s as if someone’s standing beside the character as they’re speaking, jumping up and down while waving a big flag. It makes it awfully hard to focus on the dialogue when such flashy verbs are jumping out at you and capturing your attention. In the case of such tags, the reader is distracted from the content by the mechanics of writing, which should never be the case.

Another very good reason for not using these tags is that they often describe actions that are physically impossible for people to carry out. Take, for example, the following: Sybil spat, “But I told you not to use those words!” I think you will agree that it’s not actually possible for Sybil to spit the dialogue. Nor it possible to roar, hiss, squeak, or growl words, and these verbs seem especially inappropriate in connection to human speech since they are best used to describe animal sounds. Using them automatically makes prose more melodramatic and characters more cartoonish, which I’m guessing is something writers would rather avoid. As well, it’s best to avoid all sorts of verbs that are associated with speech such as interrogated, commanded, stated, inquired, divulged, expostulated, affirmed, and objected, just to name a few. When editing, I generally reject these as being much too obtrusive for dialogue tags and go with a plainer choice.

Of course, there are certainly other verbs besides said that have their place in speaker attributions. Characters can easily reply, ask, shout, or whisper when these particular words apply. And I must admit that sometimes I’ve read one of the more exotic verbs in a dialogue tag and realized that it works beautifully and that nothing else really seems right. What I’m saying is that some flexibility is called for when considering dialogue tags. But as a general rule, keep it plain and simple. And repeat after me: said is a perfectly good word.