Monday, July 07, 2008

Writing Dialogue

I received an interesting question from a reader recently, interesting because it’s something that I’m sure is often discussed in writers' groups, but not anything I’ve ever really thought of. . . .

I've had an ongoing discussion with some writer friends about adverbs and dialog tags other than "said," and I'd like a professional agent's opinion.

I've read just about every book on writing, and if they address the topic, they say not to use adverbs ever, and that "said" or "asked" is sufficient (no shouted, yelled, whispered, groaned, commanded, etc.). But I also read published books that have their characters "whispering" and "grunting" and "saying questioningly" with abandon. A lot of published books use mostly said and asked, but an equal number do not.

So here's my question: Is there a real "rule" in the publishing world against descriptive dialog tags, or is that just something authors of writing books tell writers to get us to buy more books on how to make our writing more descriptive using nouns and strong verbs? Has an editor ever told you they liked a book, but they were passing because there were too many adverbs?

My simple answer is “no,” there’s no real rule about dialogue tags. At least no rule I’ve heard of. I suspect that the concern about dialogue tags isn’t so much about there being a rule but about how writers could easily use dialogue tags as a cop-out. For example, by saying that your character “grunted” you don’t need to show the character actually doing the labor or feeling the pain. It’s a lot easier to use one word than it is to write an entire paragraph describing why the character might grunt later.

I think dialogue tags could actually add a lot to the story if used carefully and properly. They should never interrupt the flow of the story or become a distraction to the reader and they should never be used in place of showing versus telling the story. If your character is going to whisper we need to see very clearly why she is whispering before it even happens.