How Are They Talking?

How Are They Talking?
Terry Odell

This topic has come up here at TKZ before, but I recently read a book by a best-selling author, traditionally published, that had my teeth on edge, so I’m revisiting it.

Dialogue. Characters are talking. It’s up to the author to make sure the reader knows who it is uttering those gems. The terms I’ve learned are “tags” for things like he said, she asked, etc., and identify the speaker.

“I’m hungry,” Gordon said. “What’s for lunch?” she asked.

Note: It’s also considered acceptable to use “said” for questions.

Beats show a character’s action. Gordon opened the refrigerator. “I’m hungry.”

Note: It’s better to use either a tag or a beat, not both for the same dialogue line.

What was my problem with the book I read? The author (or her editor) seemed reluctant to use the word “said.” Reluctant? It was as if she thought a rattlesnake would strike every time she did, and she used more “creative” words instead.

While there’s nothing creative about said, it has the bonus of being invisible. I was reading novel by the late Robert B. Parker when I was a beginning writer, and I stopped to evaluate his dialogue. The man tagged almost every single line of dialogue with “said” and yet I realized I’d read three full pages and hadn’t noticed a single one.

What do these creative tags do for the reader? For this reader, they jump off the page. Instead of simply letting me know who’s saying the line, they’re making me stop and think. They’re distracting. After a few chapters they become downright annoying.

What word choices did this author use? Let me count the tags.

corrected, allowed, accused, argued, tossed back, explained, grumbled, muttered, murmured, suggested, noted, offered (that was a favorite), interjected, reminded (him), insisted, implored, urged, warned, added, demanded, agreed, promised, explained, tacked on, allowed, pressed, put in, pointed out, challenged, ordered, urged, agreed.

And this was in the first 5 chapters, after which I stopped tracking them. I counted a whopping 8 uses of said in these chapters, and one of asked. Most of the “said” uses were connected with action beats, as in “She said as she poured the coffee.” Both aren’t needed for the same line.

Although this was a good story, the read was an effort for me as the creative tag words made me stop and think about them. I’d rather be thinking about the story.

What about you, TKZers? Do you prefer the invisible said or do you enjoy the creative alternatives? Why?

Cover image of Deadly Relations by Terry OdellAvailable Now
Deadly Relations.
Nothing Ever Happens in Mapleton … Until it Does
Gordon Hepler, Mapleton, Colorado’s Police Chief, is called away from a quiet Sunday with his wife to an emergency situation at the home he’s planning to sell. A man has chained himself to the front porch, threatening to set off an explosive.

Terry Odell is an award-winning author of Mystery and Romantic Suspense, although she prefers to think of them all as “Mysteries with Relationships.”