Using Those Said Bookisms,"
the Editor Shrieked:
Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags
Anne M. Marble
Anne M. Marble
happened to the word 'said'?" the editor shrieked as she read the
manuscripts in the slush pile.
a lot of authors think that the word "said" is boring. So they decide
to substitute it with different and exciting verbs. For example, right
in the middle of an important love scene, they'll throw in something like this. He
whispered, "Let me hold you."
all right, isn't it? Most of the time, it's not
OK. Readers accept the words said and asked; in fact, they barely notice those
words as they read. However, words such as "hollered" and
"bawled" often draw their attention away from the dialogue and yank
them out of the story.
and critics often refer to melodramatic dialogue tags as "said bookisms." They
know that these phrases give your story an amateurish look. Your readers might
not know what the darn things are called, but chances are that they'll notice
them, too. Especially if you use said bookisms every other line.
most cases, the word "said" would work just fine, and using said
bookisms detracts from the dialogue. Avoid drowning your dialogue in phrases
such as exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded,
queried, thundered, whispered, and muttered. These words make it sound as if you
have fallen in love with your thesaurus. If the dialogue is strong enough,
"she said" and "he said" will do. If the dialogue is not
strong enough, rewrite the dialogue instead of using said bookisms to bolster
can use said bookisms once in a while. Think of them as those little silver
candies you use for decorating cookies. If you put dozens of them on one cookie,
the cookie looks silly and is hard to eat. Like the silver candies, use these
phrases carefully and use them only on special occasions. Characters can occasionally shout or murmur something.
said, you should still avoid said bookisms that sound extreme, such as cried,
shrieked, snarled, barked, growled, and sniffed. Is it really necessary for your
heroine to "shriek" something to the hero or to "cry out" a
plea to the villain? Probably not. Phrases like "she shrieked" make
the heroine sound strident. Phrases like "he snarled" make the hero
sound like the domineering "alpha heel" heroes that went out of style
in the 1980s. Besides, when you start writing said bookisms that remind you of
animal sounds, it's time to back away from the computer very slowly and take a
break. These "extreme dialogue tags" make your story seem
melodramatic, even silly.
I know, lots of best-selling authors use said bookisms, sometimes to excess.
That doesn't mean it's all right to use them. That simply means they are so good
at telling a story that can get away with it.
of course, avoid the dialogue tag "he ejaculated." At the very least,
don't use that as a dialogue tag during a sex scene unless you want a laugh.
your energy into making sure your characters' words are strong enough, and you
won't need to lean on the said bookisms.
out," He Hissed: Dialogue Tags That Look Silly
let's go another step and explore said bookisms that should be avoided in almost
all cases. Overly potent said bookisms can create the dialogue tags that are
you decide to use a said bookism for a dialogue tag, make sure it's physically
possible. Can somebody really laugh a line of dialogue? Or cry a sentence?
Here's an example: "Go away," he
laughed. Can he really speak that line while laughing? Maybe but it
might be painful. It is, however, perfectly acceptable to use an action tag
instead of a dialogue tag. For example: "Go
away." He laughed.
use a verb used to describe an expression and then try to force it into becoming
a dialogue tag. It won't work. People don't grimace, grin, smile, and frown
their sentences. Consider this line of dialogue: "You'll
never get away from here," her evil guardian sneered. Even the most
notorious villain doesn't know how to sneer a line of dialogue.
my villain has to sneer," the writer said. Of course. It's in his nature.
So try this instead: "You'll never
get away from here." The evil guardian sneered. Don't worry about the
attribution. As long as the action is kept with its dialogue, the reader will
figure out who said what.
big kahuna of dialogue tags to avoid is "hissed." It's used a lot, but
quite often, it's used where it's unwelcome. We've all seen this dialogue tag
abused. For example: "Get out,"
she hissed. OK, you try it hiss that line. Something's missing the
sibilants. I suppose the Snake Creatures of Tilolaca could hiss that line, but
that's about it. Your characters shouldn't have to be forced to hiss their
the overuse of said bookisms will only serve to remind people that they are
reading a story. If the person reading your story is an editor, yanking him or
her out of the story can be fatal to your chance of making a sale.
Away," He Said Evasively: Adverbial Dialogue Tags
problem that can trip up writers is the overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags. Do
you remember those jokes called "Tom Swifties"? For example: "The temperature is going down," he said coolly. Those
jokes were named after a series of boy's adventure books that became notorious
for abusing adverbial dialogue tags.
a way for a writer to be remembered! You don't want to be remembered as a writer
who didn't know when to stop inserting adverbs into dialogue tags, do you?
That's why you should drop adverbs into your dialogue tags with caution.
first rule is to leave out the adverbial dialogue tag if it adds nothing to the
dialogue. If the character's words are already angry, there is no need to insert
the word "angrily" after the "she said" and "he
the second rule is to use an adverbial dialogue tag when readers would be
confused about how the dialogue is said. This is most often used when the
dialogue is said with sarcasm or irony. Let's say somebody hands a subpoena to
your heroine. And he responds with the following line of dialogue: "Thank you," she said. That doesn't tell me much. Was she grateful
for the subpoena? Or was she being excessively civil? On the other hand, let's
say she responds with the following line of dialogue: "Thank
you," she said crossly. Ah-ha! That tells me a lot more.
last note. Do not let your hero say
something "cockily" during a love scene. Please.
I'm not kidding here. I've seen that word used during a love scene, and the
results weren't pretty. Do you really want your readers laughing hysterically
during a passionate love scene? I didn't think so.