“Hello,” he lied.
– Don Carpenter, quoting a Hollywood agent
Danielle’s comment on my most recent story prompts this foray into the world of dialog(ue) tags.
When I was a young copy editor, I learned to chop “ue” endings off of words. I also learned that in newspapers, everything is “said” or “asked”; one doesn’t wax poetic in news stories.
Before that, I had this advice from the venerable Strunk and White:
It is seldom advisable to tell all. Be sparing, for instance, in the use of adverbs after “he said,” “she replied” and the like: “he said consolingly”; “she replied grumblingly.” Let the conversation itself disclose the speaker’s manner or condition. Dialogue heavily weighted is cluttery and annoying. Inexperienced writers not only overwork their adverbs but load their attributes with explanatory verbs: “he consoled,” “she congratulated.” They do this, apparently in the belief that the word said is always in need of support, or because they have been told to do so by experts in the art of bad writing.
Here is one short piece, and here is another, supporting this line of thought. I’m not entirely above using a more creative tag if the situation seems to call for it, but one can swiftly descend into the world of the Tom Swiftie. (Again, situational ethics plays a role here; there are times when it’s exactly the right thing to do.)
Still, Danielle makes an excellent point, and I’m glad she did so: in stories as compact as the ones I write, the saids do pile up rapidly. I knew that when I was writing “Information Technology,” but I couldn’t bring myself to do anything about it, save for the one “agreed” I slipped in. Said, said, said works better in longer fiction, where there is more speech between them. If I set out clearly who is speaking, then I can go for some distance without using any tags. I’ve seen pages of this in print, though, and I can lose track; it helps the reader to have the occasional station break for identification.
I’m eager to learn your ideas about handling dialog tags, especially in flash fiction.