I’m a writer who wears other hats – book reviewer, mom, real estate agent, editor. Due to that last one, I’m pretty well versed on the “rules” about what makes good writing. I can discuss point of view or show versus tell and why it’s important that new writers listen to what the experts have to say.
But there’s one rule that’s constantly giving me fits, and now that I’m deep into yet another rewrite of my women’s fiction novel THE SEESAW EFFECT, I’m wrestling with it on a daily basis. And that rule concerns the so-called invisibility of dialogue tags.
I don’t argue with the injunction against adjectives. Thanks to those Tom Swiftlys, we know how silly certain sentences can read: “I’ve lost my wife,” Tom said ruthlessly. “This bouquet doesn’t have enough flowers,” Tom said lackadaisically. “I like boys,” Tom said gaily.
Even without the puns, “I don’t know,” she said stupidly, reads as redundant and slows the action. Moreover, we’re taught to expunge the verb/adverb combo and replace them with stronger verbs. “He walked slowly” becomes “He shuffled.” “She softly touched the baby’s cheek” becomes “She stroked the baby’s cheek.” (The one exception is “sarcastically.”)
But this rule does not apply in dialogue tags. Not only are writers discouraged from using “He said pleadingly,” we’re also not supposed to use “He pleaded.” Everything is supposed to be either “said” or “asked.” This is gospel. Even Stephen King quotes it.
And I hate it. Yes, I know the dialogue is supposed to speak for itself; that we are supposed to pick up tone and meaning from the words that come out of the speaker’s mouth. But that doesn’t always happen. There are myriad ways to say the same sentences, and sometimes you need to spell out exactly how it’s said. Furthermore, there are scenes where multiple characters are speaking, and each one needs a tag to keep the conversation straight. We’re taught not to use the same word over and over again, but in these scenes, that’s exactly what happens.
But, those are the rules, and I’m going to follow them. So if you read THE SEESAW EFFECT, and you’re distracted by so many “saids” and wondering whether my protagonist’s son was whiny or brave when he got kicked out of school, I am sorry.
She said apologetically.