Harsh reality. And the reason behind it is this: there are things new authors do in their writing that instantly mark them as amateurs. They string cliches together to form lifeless paragraphs. They force readers to stand by while characters search under the bed for their shoes only to find... (ho hum!) shoes.
They gussy up their dialogue with gaudy tag lines. Their characters beseech, giggle, hiss, choke, and gush. And they do it laconically, suddenly, hoarsely, and good-naturedly.
In "Write Away," one of Sharon's favorite books on writing, author Elizabeth George tells us that most of the time, a simple said will suffice:
What happens when a writer uses said in a tag line is that the reader’s eye skips right over it. The brain takes in the name of the speaker, while the accompanying verb—providing it’s the verb said—simply gets discarded.
Elmore Leonard agrees with her. In "Writers on Writing," he says: “Never use a word other than ‘said’ to carry dialogue. . . . Never use an adverb to modify the word ‘said.’"
In "Spunk & Bite," one of Bonnie's favorite books on writing, Arthur Plotnik counters:
“Well, this annoys me,” I say pointedly. “This annoys me,” I hiss. “This annoys me!” I trumpet through cupped hands.
Plotnik does not suggest we ignore the general rule of thumb. I imagine he's seen and lived through the scenario I described at the beginning of this post. But he calls us to remember that rules of thumb have exceptions:
His point is that on occasion, a well turned fancy-tag can add humor or clarity or interest to your writing. Of all the excellent examples he offers, my favorite is this from Fay Weldon's novel, "Worst Fears:"
... maybe they are 99 percent right. But it’s the 1-percent-wrong part that intrigues me, because that’s where some of our most commercially successful writers live; because that’s where the thrill of risk and reward comes into play; and because rigidity can hamstring an idea on its way to expression.
“You prurient old cow!” shouted Alexandra. . . .
“I understand your anger,” said Leah.
“No one understands my anger!” shrieked Alexandra.
“This session is at an end,” said Leah.
Can you imagine any simpler, faster, better way to show the reader the contrast between one character's rage and the other's cold composure?
An author who learns the rules takes a great first step away from amatuer status toward publication. An author who learns when it's better than okay to break those rules makes great galumphing strides in the direction of art.
Tell us about you: Read any fabulous dialogue tags lately? Written any?
We love to read what you have to say.