Every writer has something that sets their teeth on edge. The misplaced apostrophe, the homonym error, the dangling modifier… For me the thing most likely to make me squirm is badly used identification tags. Eek! I hate that!
When I was a kid I was mad about Captain W.E. Johns’ Biggles books. I devoured them the way Sherlock fans devour GIFs of Benedict Cumberbatch removing his scarf.
Getting back to Johns… I loved the quiet yet heroic Captain Bigglesworth and his pals. All those adventures in his Sopworth Camel made me giddy with excitement. BUT… Johns had an unfortunate habit of writing things like this:
“I’m not worried about getting back from France,” Biggles smiled.
Hands up, class: who spotted the howler there?
Yes, you got it. Words cannot be smiled. They cannot be laughed, sobbed, coughed, sneezed, hiccuped or giggled. You cannot laugh and talk at the same time. Try it. The same goes for coughing, sneezing, etc.
Words can be whispered, shouted, hissed or asked but, preferably, they should be said.
It’s such a simple thing, why do so many writers get it wrong? Perhaps they think “he said” is too boring. Not literary enough. But in fact using sneered, mocked, reviled, derided, or, if your mind set is still in the 19th century, ejaculated (!) instead of a simple “he said” is the literary equivalent of a little kid riding a 2-wheeler bike on his own for the first time yelling, “Hey, mum, look at MEEE!!” Yes, honey, we see you. We see you sitting there putting words on the page just like a grown up writer. Bless.
It’s understandable really. After all, new writers are told to use dynamic verbs and to avoid the weak. I’ve said it myself, as you may recall. But the verb “said” falls into a different and unique category. It’s not weak, it’s neutral. Invisible. Readers hardly notice “he said” in prose and that is, in general, what you want. The thing the character is saying is generally far more important than how they said it. Here’s an excerpt from John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men (1937). Ain’t nothin’ but ‘said’s here:
‘I forgot,’ Lennie said softly. ‘I tried not to forget. Honest to God I did, George.’
‘O.K.—O.K. I’ll tell ya again. I ain’t got nothing to do. Might jus’ as well spen’ all my time tell’n you things and then you forget ‘em, and I tell you again.’
‘Tried and tried,’ said Lennie, ‘but it didn’t do no good. I remember about the rabbits, George.’
‘The hell with the rabbits. That’s all you ever can remember is them rabbits. O.K.! Now you listen and this time you got to remember so we don’t get in no trouble. You remember settin’ in that gutter on Howard street and watchin’ that blackboard?’
Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile. ‘Why sure, George, I remember that…but…what’d we do then? I remember some girls come by and you says…you say…’
‘The hell with what I says. You remember about us goin’ into Murray and Ready’s, and they give us work cards and bus tickets?’
‘Oh, sure, George, I remember that now.’ His hands went quickly into his side coat pockets. He said gently, ‘George…I ain’t got mine. I musta lost it.’ He looked down at the ground in despair.
‘You never had none, you crazy bastard. I got both of ‘em here. Think I’d let you carry your own work card?’
Lennie grinned with relief.
We’ll be referring back to that excerpt so I hope you enjoyed it. Did you notice how Steinbeck only used ‘said’, and those only twice?
There are, of course, a few times when you need to use something other than “he said”. For instance:
When the delivery conflicts with the words being spoken:
“I love you!” he screamed.
“I had such a wonderful day,” she wailed.
“You’re such a pretty girl,” he sneered.
As you can see from these examples, the words on their own suggest one particular mood, but the way they are said changes the tone entirely. Now you could opt to use said and an adverb: he said belligerently… she said sadly... etc. but I think you’ll agree in these particular cases, the stronger and more specific verb carries a greater punch.
When there may be some ambiguity about how a particular line might be delivered by the character:
“You don’t frighten me,” she whispered carries a very different feel to “You don’t frighten me,” she shouted.
These exceptions — and they are exceptions — should be used sparingly and for good reason.
When a tag is unnecessary.
You don’t need to add, “he said” (whispered, shouted…) every time your character speaks. Often you can just let the conversation go on for at least a couple of lines before you need to add the tag. The Steinbeck excerpt above does this. There’s no “George said”, for instance. George’s dialogue is simply stated and we infer everything we need to know about it from Lennie’s reaction.
When the line is so powerful anything that comes after it is anticlimactic:
The master craftsman that is Roddy Doyle (genuflect when you say that name) is one of the greatest masters of dialogue you’ll ever read. In this excerpt from Two More Pints (2014) we find a couple of men complaining at the law that forbids using a mobile phone while driving:
– Now you can’t even drive up the quays an’ do your online shopping at the same time.
– There’s no pleasure in life, is there?
– Last week – listen. I hit a woman with a pram outside Artane Castle, righ’. When I was having a quick gawk at Paddy Power’s website. But – and this is my point, this is why it’s bad law. If I hadn’t been choosin’ a horse, I’d have been goin’ way quicker and I’d have killed the poor woman. And in fairness she saw my point, once we got her down from the roof.
I think you’ll agree, a tag in there would spoil the rhythm of the dialogue and kill the last line deader than dead.
Sometimes it’s preferable to use an action to underscore the conversation. Take another look at that Steinbeck excerpt — yes, him again, but he’s not considered a literary genius for nothing:
Lennies’s face broke into a delighted smile… Lennie grinned with relief.
Notice how the rhythm keeps you reading while the characters of the two men are clearly defined. See how the action — always Lennie’s action, not George’s — serve to paint a picture of the man. Even if you’ve never read the book (seriously, you’ve never read Of Mice and Men? For shame!) you’d pick up that Lennie is a bit slow and George is looking after him. From a mere 222 words, two ‘saids’, a couple of smiles and great dialogue, we got all of that. Amazing!
That’s it for tags. Next week is my book launch so I’ll be skipping this blog. We’ll pick this up in two weeks and spend some more time looking dialogue.
In the meantime, have fun writing and please, I’m begging you, don’t write, “Yes,” he smiled.