When I was in school in the 90s, our English teachers were always forcing us to find an alternative to using dialogue tags or attribution. They claimed that “he said” and “she said” became boring and monotonous and they would take points away if we had it in our creative writing papers. We needed to find other ways to attribute dialogue. Even “he asked” or “she questioned” were too blah for their taste.
Here’s the problem with that: they worked this into our minds, instilled this notion so perfectly, that we got to the point that we stopped using it altogether. We might say “he grunted” or “she sneered” or perhaps even “she tittered” but we didn’t dare use “he said” for absolute fear of boring the reader. And our writing suffered for it. Eventually, we dismissed using attribution at all and let the previous or following sentence try to explain who had been talking, which doesn’t always work.
I say “our” because, apparently, I am not the only one who had this horrible lesson in school. Don’t get me wrong, I know what the teachers were trying to do, but they were too extreme with their lessons. Time and again (and again and again) I read passages of dialogue and I have no idea who is speaking. A character will have an action in the previous sentence, a line of dialogue follows, then another character has an action. Who was speaking? I’m left re-reading and searching through dialogue to try and figure it out and no reader wants that. Anything that takes you out of the story is a big NO.
I think these teachers had a good idea originally. A back-and-forth conversation should be broken up here and there with action, sure. Adding a bit to a dialogue tag can not only keep it from sounding boring, but give us more of an idea of the characters and scenery, yes, definitely. But never using dialogue tags? Refusing to clue the reader in to who is speaking? This is an extreme a writer should never venture to. Omitting dialogue tags can work when the quote is attached to ONE character’s action. However, too many times I see authors slapping the dialogue in the wrong place, attaching it to the next paragraph and the next person’s actions. Or, the dialogue is thrown in with two people’s actions and it becomes really confusing.
Honestly, using these common dialogue tags is not as boring and monotonous as some would have us believe. Our minds are trained to see and process these phrases without conscious thought. We have been trained from childhood to read these common tags and dismiss them. Seriously, Dick and Jane books? We read them and keep going because it is instrumental to the formatting of the dialogue, just like punctuation for a sentence. We expect them. We only notice if there are too many of the same or none at all and we are left with questions. Here is a quick example paragraph to give you a more visual idea of what I mean. Here is what our teachers warned us of:
“Hello,” Missy said.“Hello,” Dave said.“I don’t like your dress,” he said.“Oh, why ever not?” she asked. Her bright smile vanished. Bob appeared at her elbow. He put his hands on his hips.“Yes, that is quite a rude thing to say,” Bob said.“I think it is ugly. The color doesn’t suit you,” Dave said.
Yes, that is quite boring. Now let me show you the kind of stories I have been trying to muddle through lately:
“Hello.” Missy waved and the boy nodded at her.“Hello.”“I don’t like your dress.” Her bright smile vanished. Bob appeared at her elbow. He put his hands on his hips.“Oh, why ever not?” “Yes, that is quite a rude thing to say.” Dave only shrugged.“I think it is ugly. The color doesn’t suit you.” Missy could only stare at him blankly.
Though that isn’t as boring as the first paragraph, it can become confusing. Who says “I don’t like your dress.”, Bob or Dave? Who says “Oh, why ever not?”, Bob or Missy? Here is an example of what you should be doing here.
“Hello,” Missy said.“Hello,” Dave replied. “I don’t like your dress.”“Oh, why ever not?” she asked. Her bright smile vanished. Bob appeared at her elbow, putting his hands on his hips.“Yes, that is quite a rude thing to say,” Bob said.“I think it is ugly. The color doesn’t suit you,” Dave insisted with a shrug.
Is it perfect? No, but it isn’t confusing either, is it? If you don’t want to use too many common dialogue tags, by all means, get creative. Grab a thesaurus and go to town on your story. Just don’t get too crazy. There is nothing wrong with ‘said’ and ‘asked.’ And please, please don’t leave your reader befuddled and jolted out of the story by using them in a confusing way or not using them at all.