Dealing with Dialogue Tags

Looking back at some of my earlier work, I cannot help but cringe at my use of “said bookisms” such as roared, admonished, exclaimed, queried, and hissed. I was trying to avoid overusing the word “said” and looked for suitable alternatives. I realize now that using all those words only made it sound like I enjoyed using my thesaurus. I was annoying the reader and drawing attention away from the dialogue.

It is not necessary to help the reader interpret the dialogue, or worse, tell the reader how the words are said instead of showing him. If the dialogue is strong enough, “he said” and “she said” will do. Like other parts of speech—the, is, and, but—that are used several times on each page, “said” is invisible to the reader and allows him to concentrate on the action and dialogue.

To add variety, I have been working on using action to vary the tags. I am also trying to simplify the narrative and use taut dialogue to build up tension.

The following excerpt from Kaleidoscope,  Gail Bowen’s latest in the Joanne Kilbourn Mystery series,  illustrates the effective use of dialogue:

The news I was about to deliver was harsh, and Taylor and Zack both knew it. Zack reached across the table and took our daughter’s hand.

“So how bad is it?” he asked.

“It’s bad,” I said. “Everything in the east half of the house is pretty well gone. The bedrooms are all right. The police wouldn’t let us look at the basement, but I think it’s safe to assume there’ll be structural damage there.”

“So, what’s left?” Taylor asked, her voice small.

“Your mother’s paintings are still on loan to that retrospective, so they’re safe. And the Scott Plear and your abstract were in our bedroom, so they’re fine. Nothing in your bedroom was touched.”

“But the room where the pool was is gone?” she asked.

I nodded.

“So the fresco I painted on the wall is gone?”

“Yes.”

“And the self-portrait I gave Dad for Christmas?”

“It was in the family room.”

“And the family room is gone?” Taylor’s eyes brimmed with tears, but she set her mouth in a determined line and turned to Zack. “I’ll paint another one.”