The War on Dialogue Tags

I am not a fan of this current fad to strip all dialogue tags!

This is the current wisdom in editing.  It’s believed that things that are not “said” or “asked” are distracting and should be cut.  It is “justified,” for example, by the conventional wisdom that you can’t “growl” a sentence; a “growl” is an action, and if you want someone to “growl,” you should have them do so as a separate action after the sentence is stated.  Here’s one article that explains this theory in detail.

I disagree completely, and I have many reasons.

Yes, You Can Growl a Sentence

First of all, they’re wrong.  If you know someone with asthma, you know how someone can “gasp” a sentence.  If you know someone who has been extremely angry, you know how they can “growl” a sentence through gritted teeth.  I’ll give them “smile;” you can’t really “smile” a sentence.  I’ll even give them “laughed,” because when you “laugh” a statement, you really sort of laugh between the words.  But you can, indeed, hiss, sputter, groan, moan, gasp, whine, growl, yell, roar, or spit a piece of dialogue.

I love my editors, don’t get me wrong, but I even had “urged” purged recently.  Here’ s the dictionary definition of urge, if anyone wants to look it up.  By nature, this is a dialogue tag!  Nobody just “urges!”  Urges what?  You have to urge someone to do, or not to do, something!  It must be accompanied by a separate action — how is the character “urging?” — and a subject — what is the character urging someone to do?

Even if That Isn’t True, It Is

Okay, so maybe they don’t  believe my argument.  Okay: Haven’t these people ever heard of a metaphor?  See, it’s like saying, “the sky was bleeding.”  Of course the sky does not actually bleed.  That’s silly.  This is a way of describing a sinister red sunset or sunrise, with the intent of communicating a certain level of foreboding or grimness.  By saying “the sky was bleeding,” we can get all that in four words instead of three paragraphs, and in a day and age when magazines are allowing a maximum of 5000 word short stories because they don’t want to pay more than a couple of hundred bucks for a story at the most, that matters.  I’m pretty sure my readers understand that.

Just Because They Gave it a Little Pet Name to Denigrate it, Doesn’t Mean There’s Anything Wrong with It

One argument is that “said-bookisms” (dialogue tags that are not a bland report of who said what) are distracting and unnecessary, and they serve no purpose other than to display the writer’s vocabulary.

Okay, first of all, every form of art has its conventions.  The intense close-up of movies might be an example.  Do we really stick our faces right into the face of someone who’s having an emotional moment?  No.  This is done to emphasize the emotional moment.

Second, I realize that Millennials have spent their whole lives on the internet, typing things in text and illustrating emotion with emojis, even when sitting across the table from each other, so maybe they don’t know, but tone of voice is important.  These alternate words change a script into prose dialogue because they describe tone of voice.  The way in which something is said often communicates as much as what is said.

Plus, they already decided we weren’t allowed to use adverbs about twenty years ago, so how else is that supposed to be described, please?

Third, maybe my choice of word is intended to illustrate something else, like a point of characterization.  Maybe I said that the Mayor “pontificated” because I wanted to show that he was a pompous blowhard.  Maybe I said that the farmer “drawled” because I wanted to show a) that he was laid back and b) was not terribly impressed by self-important city-folk.

Fourth, just how stupid do they think readers are?  Are we all to go back to Dick and Jane?  See Spot Run?  People who read understand words with three syllables or more.  Maybe this isn’t true of online writing (I’ll give them that, I’ve read the comments sections,) but nobody reads prose fiction who doesn’t like to read, so trust me, readers can figure it out.  I think they’re depriving us of using the full richness of the language.  If you ask me, it’s like forbidding people to see in magenta or taupe because they don’t understand it.

Thank the gods we don’t seem to have embraced this silliness in speculative fiction yet, except for the case of the “literary” writers who dabble in the genre.  We trust our readers to be able to understand multi-syllabic words.

Just Because This Seems to Be the Current Fad, Does Not Make it Superior

I read a very condescending article that made fun of the use of creative dialogue tags throughout, then addressed the fact that writers have used them all the time for a long time, with a quote from “Little Women,” and a sort of a tee hee! at the end implying that the world is very different from the world of Little Women, so now that we’re so much more advanced, so is our writing, so we don’t use dialogue tags.

Honey, I’ll just point out that Little Women is an enduring classic.  And whom, may I ask, has ever heard of you?

I’m sure that people will get over this in another ten years.  In the meantime, just know that while I’m aware that this appears to be the current preference, I’m not a believer that following the herd gets you anything worth getting. So edit it your way if you must, and I’ll play along (somewhat) but I don’t agree, and I’m going to fight it.  Every. Step. Of. The. Way.

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