Beyond Trumpeting and Ejaculation; Other Uses for Dialogue Tags

I dimly remember an exercise from middle school in which we spent the better part of an hour coming up with synonyms for said:

She chortled…

He sobbed…

She gasped…

They chanted…

Long before we got to that pinnacle of 19th century linguistic excitement – He ejaculated – the limitations of the exercise were growing painfully clear. While it’s neat that we have a lot of words in English, imagine a piece of prose laboring beneath the weight of these dialogue tags:

“I love you,” she prevaricated.

“You don’t,” he expostulated. “You can’t.”

She stared into his eyes, then hissed, “Yes, Ronald. I swear.”

“No,” he trumpeted. “No!”

Some writers seem to think the example above is something to which all of us should aspire. Having graded thousands of high school stories and essays loaded to the margins with I lisped, and she labored, I can’t agree.

Often, of course, it’s best not to use a dialogue tag at all; carefully crafted dialogue can usually haul its own emotional freight without too much extra help. On the other hand, we’ve all had that vexing experience of losing our place in the dialogue and being forced to count down the lines with our fingers muttering, “John said this, then Jane said this, then John said this, then Jane said that…”

Contrary to the standard high school dictum, said and replied can be great options. Both are virtually invisible, inaudible; we read right past them into the heart of the quote itself, which is surely what we ought to be doing most of the time. At the same time, they help us to keep our place.

There is another function to the dialogue tag, however, one that has nothing to do with either clarifying the speaker or explaining the tone in which the words are delivered, one concerned almost entirely with pacing. Consider this exchange from A Dance with Dragons (unless you’re worried about MINOR SPOILERS. In that case, AVERT YOUR EYES!)

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

“Vengeance.” His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening. “Justice.” Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers, and whispered, “Fire and blood.”

I love this passage, but let’s play with it a bit. Imagine it went like this:

She narrowed her eyes. “What is our heart’s desire?”

Prince Doran pressed the onyx dragon into her palm with his swollen, gouty fingers. His voice was soft, as if he were afraid that someone might be listening: “Vengeance. Justice. Fire and blood.”

All the essential elements of the original are there, and yet this seems to my ear immeasurably worse. The problem is that the quote itself is rushed. Vengeance, as both a notion and a word, deserves its own space. If this were a film (and I haven’t watched the show far enough to see if it plays out this way) the actor would pause after the word, but an author can’t write explicit instructions to the reader: Pause here to consider my genius. Linger on this carefully chosen word.

Instead, the author controls the pace of the reading in other ways, in this case, through the dialogue tag, which is extended to include a single action and a description of Doran’s voice. My altered version, on the other hand, sounds like a grocery list: While you’re picking up the Captain Crunch, bananas, and milk, don’t forget the vengeance, justice, fire, and blood.

And, of course, in none of this is there a role for trumpeting, gasping, prevaricating, or any of the other tags I spent that childhood morning listing. Doran’s tag is punched up from said to whispered, but the verb doesn’t draw attention to itself. Its function isn’t to tell us how Doran is speaking – we’ve just had a description of his voice – it is, like all the other words around it, to slow the line of dialogue, to let each one of those brutal nouns hit home with all its force.

10 thoughts on “Beyond Trumpeting and Ejaculation; Other Uses for Dialogue Tags”

    1. bstaveley says:

      Glad it was interesting/useful. Once I started thinking about this, I felt like I could go on and on. Might put together a follow-up post some day…

  1. married2arod says:

    Great post and what an awful school exercise, lol. I’ve actually had this dialogue tag discussion with writer’s in my writing group. In addition to allowing the author to manipulate the flow of dialogue like you mentioned, tags like ‘said’ are also meant to fade into the background. Other than the occasional whisper, gasp and yell all these other action-oriented dialogue substitutes are distracting to readers. My favorite of yours was trumpeted. I’m still laughing!

    1. bstaveley says:

      I mean, it is sort of amazing how many tags there are in English, but there are also about a million paint colors, and I’m not doing my new deck in a combination of fuscia and lollipop blue…

      1. married2arod says:

        lol. But lapis and burnt umber…that’s a different story 😛

  2. Joel J. Adamson says:

    I was just reading Dubliners by James Joyce, and it amazed me how clear the dialog was. Even without using quotation marks, it’s always clear who is speaking and how they are saying it.

    1. bstaveley says:

      That’s actually an exercise that I used to give my own high school students — write a scene involving multiple speakers and no dialogue tags. It’s tough! Something that I still work on with my own stuff…

  3. sjhigbee says:

    A great article, Brian – thank you. But, of course, school isn’t teaching children to write prose professionally for entertainment – they are teaching children to extend their vocabulary and show examiners they know a wide range of words. Which is why often people who were good at English at school often write terrible novels when they start out…

    1. bstaveley says:

      Very true! One of my most persistent worries, when I was teaching high school English, was that the type of writing we were teaching, i.e. the analytical essay, was far from the best use of our students’ time. Not that I think every English student should become a novelist, but it seems to me that they might be better served writing novels than writing essays on imagery in Macbeth. Not a closed case, at least in my book, but an interesting area for discussion, at least…

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