Hello, and welcome to About This Writing Thing, a bi-weekly podcast about living the writing life. I am your host, Sayword B. Eller, novelist, short story writer, and podcaster.
Last week I heard some pretty terrible writing advice on TikTok. I know, right? This video encouraged writers to forego "said" and embellish with punchier verbs like "retorted", "expounded", "wept", etc.
Elmore Leonard's "10 Rules of Writing" hangs above my desk. Mere inches from the top of my screen. Rule number 3: Never use a verb other than "said" to carry dialogue."
I'm not in the all or nothing camp. I think sometimes it's okay to use a verb other than said in an end tag, but I think it should be done sparingly. Most often we should be using actions to indicate how a character is saying their dialogue, but now and then a simple verb may be used. In other words, sometimes "asked" is necessary, but never "shouted", especially if you've used an exclamation mark.
One thing I 100% agree with Leonard on is rule 4: Never use an adverb to modify "said". I know bestselling authors do it, but this is an instance where you should seriously avoid following their lead. It's amateurish and lazy to let an adverb do what the actions of your characters should be doing. No surprise here, but that bad TikTok writing advice I mentioned came with a list featuring scores of adverbs.
I know Stephen King's It is riddled with adverbs in dialogue tags. Trust me, I tried to read it. But even he added in his 1999 memoir/craft book that we should avoid adverbs. What's the quote again? Oh yes, "While to write adverbs is human, to use 'he said' or 'she said' is divine." We'll talk more about adverbs and end tags in a couple of weeks.
What is the main use for end tags? To let the reader know who's speaking, right? Yes, I am right. The question was rhetorical. Some writers do this masterfully. Using end tags sparingly but at the right moment that keeps the reader in the conversation without them pausing to say, "Wait a minute, who said that?"
There is an author whose work I love, but they don't use enough end tags sometimes. In both their books I've found myself (at some point) taken out of the story to try and figure out who is speaking. That's a case where the author is using end tags far too sparingly. Most often, I find myself shrugging and moving on, never really knowing who was speaking, but not knowing gnaws at me. I find this most often in writers who are trying to stay in deep POV. They want the reader completely and totally immersed in a story. Problem is, if I don't know which characters is speaking I'm not longer immersed in the story. Instead, I'm going back to try to follow the line of dialogue and figure out who's saying what.
This is exactly, as writers, we should make a concerted effort to learn as much about end tags and how to use them as possible. Yes, in the '80s and '90s it was all the rage to pretty up the end tag with other verbs and adverbs, but that's when everyone was still writing in third person omniscient and we hadn't quite learned that a limited perspective is favored above a know-it-all one. It gets us closer to the character, lets us feel what they're feeling and experience what they're experiencing without some ever-present entity telling us what's happening.
Speaking of telling, the use of verbs in end tags is a big signal that you're telling instead of showing in your narrative. While some telling is necessary, when our characters are in conversation the last thing we should be doing is telling our readers how they should be hearing the characters speak. This is where action or beats are so important. When in conversation we're not simply sitting stiff and unmoving, so our characters shouldn't be either. There should be movement even in your conversations, just like in real life.
"You don't know what you're talking about!" Sally exclaimed. Isn't nearly as effective as: Sally paced back and forth, hands flying through the air shooting her energy out into the room like bolts of lightning. If only they were. Oh, the havoc she could wreak. She was caught and there was little she could do to deny it now. Turning, she looked at him through eyes that pulsed in time with her rapidly beating heart. "You don't know what you're talking about!"
Okay, it needs some work, but first drafts are supposed to be bad, right?
Even though it's a sub par example, it's still evident why action is preferred over an end tag. An end tag simply tells us how Sally said this dialogue. I want to point out that the exclamation point does that anyway, so "exclaimed" is redundant, but that's a different conversation. In the first example we only know that she exclaimed because the writer told us Sally exclaimed. However, we don't know how she's feeling, what's going through her mind, etc. But in the second example we know that she's agitated because she's pacing back and forth, her hands are flailing about. We also know that she's angry. We don't lose the exclamation point because she needs it there to get that energy out, but we've used her actions to completely eliminate the end tag.
I talk about beats in episode 24. You'll find the link in the description below.
It is important to remember as you listen to this podcast, other podcasts, or read craft books and articles that you remember, writing is subjective. (remainder of section not transcribed)
Because I think we should all develop our own rules for writing, here are the rules I follow when it comes to end tags:
- Don't use an end tag if an action will work better: This is the primary rule in my writing process when it comes to end tags. When going back through my drafts I pay special attention to sections of dialogue to see if I could have used action to convey how something was being said, or who was saying it. Using actions or beats keeps a scene active and keeps the pace moving forward.
- Use them at the beginning of a conversation: This signals to the reader know who is in the conversation and who is speaking. They will find their rhythm from there and be able to follow along, thus allowing you to avoid overusing end tags.
- Use them midway if a conversation is long: This will help the reader keep their place in the conversation. Sometimes if dialogue between two characters goes on for too long the reader may forget who's speaking when. An end tag (but preferably action) midway through the conversation will help the reader keep their place.
- Never ever use adverbs: In my older writing you will see adverbs galore in my end tags. That's because the writers I was reading when I began writing were from that school of writers who believed that adverbs jazzed up your end tags. Truth is, they don't. Nowadays they just make you look lazy. I'm not putting these writers down. I loved their work at one time. But, like everything else, I evolved and changed with the times. Most of them have as well.
The same things that were popular 10, 20, and 30 years ago in writing are not popular now and when you continue to use them your writing appears dated, and you look like a writer unwilling to learn new things. What's rule #1 of being a writer? You will never know everything there is to know about writing. Why? Because writing is an ever-evolving organism. It shifts and changes with the times. We should do so as well.
When should we use end tags?
The simple answer is, when they're needed. This is something you will learn over time and through reading and being critiqued. The thing to remember is that we're not perfect. What you write today will make you cringe five or ten years from now because you will be a different writer then.
Look for your cues. If you read your dialogue out loud and you begin to register the "he saids" and "she saids" then you've used too many. If you read the dialogue out loud and you lose who's talking, you haven't used enough. If you have verbs other than "said" or "asked", pay attention to those passages and see if you can add an action or beat that will eliminate the end tag. Usually if you're using verbs outside of "said" or "asked" you're telling and that should almost always be eliminated.
As always, I've included several articles in the description of this episode that will be a great starting place in your journey to learn how to use dialogue tags effectively.
That's it for this week. If you liked this episode please give me a like, subscribe, whatever. Share me with your friends and on social media. If you want to know what I'm doing between shows you can find me on Instagram and Twitter (@saybeller) and you can find this podcast on Twitter (@writingthingpod) and on Instagram (@aboutthiswritingthing).
Next time I'll be talking about end tags and adverbs. Until then, take care and keep writing.
Give Me A Beat: Finding a Balance that Works: https://aboutthiswritingthing.podbean.com/e/episode-24-give-me-a-beat-finding-a-balance-that-works/