Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Technical Topics -- On Beyond Said

Elsewhere someone was wondering whether to use 'said'.
Or not.
 I keep talking about tagging, actually.
So I will do it some more.

Here are a couple of simple, basic guidelines in the tagging of dialog:

1) Make certain the reader knows who said every line of dialog. No confusion.

2) Don't forget there are lots of ways to tag dialog. Be adventurous.

3) You can almost always tag with 'he said' and you will be invisible

4) You can tag with the equivalent of 'he said' and you will be less invisible.
.....   'he muttered', 'he whispered', he 'remarked', 'he answered', 'he objected'.

5) In the choice between 'he said' and one of the saidisms,
you are about all the time better going with 'he said'

6) You can tag with an action
.....   'he began to put the fire out', 'he stabbed Guido', 'he activated the bomb', 'he put oil on the salad', 'he reconsidered'
Action tags are good.
Action that occurs close to the dialog tags it. The action has to be performed by the one speaking. It has to be in the same paragraph.

7) Tagging actions are separated from dialog by a period.
..... "Let him go." George cocked the pistol.
..... "You cut your hair." Maurice sneered. "It was a mistake."

8) Unless the action occurs inside the sentence.

There are two possible ways to do this. 

You can write this sort of sentence with em dashes. They go outside the quotation marks.
Using emdashes is beloved by the Chicago Manual of Style.
"Use emdashes," they say.
I have many issues with the CMOS

..... "I'm a friend of rabbits"--his eyes glittered--"generally."
..... "I have better things to do tonight"--he put down the gun--"than murder intruders."

I find this a particularly ugly way to indicate an inserted action. I think it distracts the reader.

The other way to do this is to use commas. 

..... "I'm a friend of rabbits," his eyes glittered, "generally."
..... "I have better things to do tonight," he put down the gun, "than murder intruders."

This may be 'incorrect' according to copyeditors, but good, careful writers are doing this.

9) 'Said' and its brother saidisms are always separated from dialog by commas.
.....  "No one does it better," Anna whispered.
.....  "A bird in the bush is worth two in the hand," Maurice maintained.
.....  Quoth the Raven, "Nevermore."
If you do not know whether something is a 'saidism' or an action, go sit and think about it for a while. Over there.

10) Do not double-tag. If an action or other method tags the dialog, don't add 'he said'. You will eliminate many 'he saids' from the manuscript by following this simple rule. Over a lifetime you will eliminate a small mountain of them.
..... NOT "You watch the door," he said loading the second musket.
..... BUT "You watch the door." He loaded the second musket.

11) Do not mistake actions performed by the mouth, tongue, lips and throat for saidism. One does not grin, laugh, mime, simper, chortle, frown, or sneer words.
Go ahead. Smile me a couple words.
The  readers won't care about this but grammar purists all over the English-speaking world are grinding their teeth. Can't you hear them?
Can one 'grind out' words? Spit them out? Cough them out?
I'm still thinking about this.

Also, one does not hiss dialog containing no 's' or 'z'.
It's not, "Fee, Fi, Fo, Fum," he hissed.

12) Many lines of dialog are tagged by responsion. We know who spoke because they are taking turns. (Middlemarch does this for pages.)
Tweedledee said, "Your fault!"
"Not," Tweedledum snapped.
"Is not."
"You're the one who put Cicero in the pudding."

13) Many lines are tagged by 'voice'. The reader knows the speaker because no one else sounds like that.

14) Many lines are tagged by special knowledge, by location in the scene, by what the speaker perceives. 

15) You can tag with Internal Monologue. This assigns the dialog to the POV character.
.....  "Probably you want to point that gun at the lizard men."  You idiot.  

16) You can tag with Internals, which also assigns the dialog to the POV character.
.....  "Probably you want to point that gun at the lizard men." George had always been an idiot.. "Not so much at the choir."


17) You can tag with Direct Address in a two-man conversation or where it tags the next line of dialog or responsion or where the Direct Address identifies the speaker. 'Not now, Papa' tags the daughter as the speaker.

Careful not to over use this. Real speak contains very little Direct Address.

In short, tagging dialog gives the writer a lotta freedom of choice. We only start out with 'said'.
We don't have to stay there. 
There's a whole big universe of clever things to do with words when we jump off and let go.



  1. I bookmarked this. If any writer ever asks me how to become better at craft, I'll tell them 1) Read tons and tons of fiction and 2) Read Joanna Bourne's blog. Seriously, you should put all this wisdom in a book. I know most of these tagging rules, but it helps to see them written out so succinctly. I especially like #15. I don't do that enough in my books.
    Thanks for posting this and other Technical Topics!

    1. I just love Internal Monologue. If I had my druthers my pages would be full of Italics with folks heads spilling out all over the page.

      Ummm .... maybe that's an overly visual way to put that ...

  2. I agree with Sandy! Your Technical Topics are worth their weight in gold.

    I like internal monologue, too!

    1. I find writing stuff out helps me think about it.

      Also -- good procrastination

  3. This has been a hot topic in the forum this week. As always, you bring such clarity to writing techniques.

    1. I must have missed the discussion on this. I'll have to go by and read.

      But, not tonight. I'm supposed to be getting some work done. *g*

  4. Oooooh! May I repost you next week? Pretty please! ;-)

    1. Yes indeed. For you, no problem.

  5. I tend to misread "saidism" as "sadism" -- it always makes me wonder if there's a Marquis de Said out there.
    I do appreciate blog posts on craft. Honest. It's just that I'm easily distracted by bright shiny tangents.

    1. Many posts on writing technique would be improved by the reading of 'saidism' as 'sadism'.

      I'll have add a few more examples sometime or another

  6. Great analysis, as usual.
    I dunno about grinding, spitting and coughing. I don't think you can cough out dialogue, but grinding (between clenched teeth) or spitting (from that Italian spitfire over there) seem plausible.

    1. I'd like to add these to the arsenal. I will go about for a while grinding out words to see if it's successful.

      They will find me odd at the supermarket.