dianne salerni author
dianne salerni author

I was recently part of a (heated) online discussion about dialogue tags. I am going to leave out all names and even the name of the discussion forum, but it boils down to this:

Writer A asked Writer B to give feedback on her work. Writer B’s feedback suggested that Writer A had used too large a variety of dialogue tags and that professional authors only used said, replied, and asked. In particular, Writer B said that any agent would identify Writer A as an amateur by her use of breathed as a dialogue tag. “Dialogue tags should be like door hinges,” said Writer B. “They should do their job and be invisible to the reader.” According to this self-appointed authority, readers ignore said, replied, and asked, but their attention is drawn to screeched, gasped, and the dreaded breathed – thus pulling them out of the story.

As you can imagine, discussion on this forum exploded, and it wasn’t pretty. The definition of breathed was debated. (One definition is to speak in a breathy voice, btw.) Door hinges were debated – attractive and decorative door hinges are often desirable and add style to a room.

I watched the verbs fly from a safe distance for awhile, and then I decided to do a little research of my own. I went to my own bookcases and pulled three books off the shelves at random. (I closed my eyes, I swear.) Then I opened the book to pages that contained dialogue and started up a tally sheet.

Within 3 pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, I found the following tags: continued, declared, whispered, exclaimed, interrupted, and screeched. I found only a single said in those pages.

Within 3 pages of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, I found said used extensively, but also: whispered, returned, improvised, counseled, and smiled. The exact quote on that one is “That’s all right,” he smiled. (In my opinion, smiling is not a proper speech tag, Philippa!)

The one author who used said the most was JK Rowling in The Order of the Phoenix. Still, she modified them with adverbs: said grimly, said angrily, said stiffly. (Aren’t adverbs supposed to be another big no-no?) Occasionally she did use other words: screamed, called, bellowed.

As a reader, do you notice the door hinges … er, dialogue tags? Would you prefer that every single one be either said, asked, or replied? As a writer, what is your style?

Personally, I leave off the dialogue tag when I can – when it’s absolutely obvious who is speaking. But when I use them, I prefer to choose one that precisely describes the type of speech. And I cannot bear to use any speech tag twice in a row – or even on a page, if I can help it.

What about you?