I had my first piece of fiction critiqued on Scribophile this week. I was surprisingly pleased at how kind people were with the majority of their comments and the criticisms pointed out were constructive and useful. I think I’m going to like Scribophile: productive feedback is just what I need right now to improve my writing skills, and this is exactly what the community is designed for.
One of the idiosyncrasies of my writing that has been brought to my attention is my use of dialogue tags. Since someone highlighted that I tended not to use ‘said’ in my short story, I’ve been noticing my distaste of this description elsewhere. I tend to use other verbs to denote how my characters say something. This isn’t out of some need to demonstrate how wonderful my writing is – according to various sources of writing advice over use of other verbs instead of ‘said’ tend to highlight the writer as an amateur, looking to impress.
I’ve never really noticed this issue with my dialogue before, but now that it’s been mentioned once I have an eye for it, and they are right: rarely does the word ‘said’ appear in my dialogue. This isn’t intentional – I tend to utilise as much vocabulary as I can when I write and therefore seldom struggle to find the word I am looking for to describe the scenes in my mind. However, I’m not sure if this distance I’ve created between my dialogue and ‘said’ is a positive or negative influence. I understand how it might appear to others, but when I write it sounds right.
Typical examples of verbs that I use in place of said include: ask, respond, reply, mutter, mumble, scream, yell…All of which are typical suggestions of what not to use. However, I only use dialogue tags as a whole sparingly. More common in my writing of conversations are moments of action to accompany the speech – thereby identifying the speaker.
Here’s an example:
“Are you allowed to come for tea?”
Madeline looked up, startled by my voice in her usually solitary thoughts.
“Oh,” she replied, “Yes, yes I am.” Madeline fidgeted in her seat. “As long as my Dad isn’t working the late shift and can come and pick me up.”
I tilted my head slightly, pondering her words.
“I thought you said he worked almost every weekend?”
Madeline nodded, with no expression for me to read. It was a no then.
I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to showcasing Madeline to my family, especially my older brother Eric. I had a suspicion that his sarcastic comments would retrieve equally smart remarks from sharp-tongued Madeline. It would be nice to hear Eric flounder for once, like I usually did.
“So you don’t think you’ll make it?”
Madeline remained stoic, shrugging her shoulders in mute response.
“Do you still want to come?”
My mouth was dry in anticipation of the answer. I had no doubt that she wouldn’t hesitate to lie in order to spare my feelings. So as I awaited her response it felt like a lifetime.
“I do,” she said, jumping up from her seat. She walked over to me and leant against the table. “But if my Dad can’t pick me up I can’t come.”
“Well, maybe my Dad could drop you off instead.”
I said it without really thinking. It would take a lot of cajoling to convince my Dad, he didn’t appreciate being a taxi service at the best of times.
Madeline perked up immediately, standing straight with a casual flick of her hair.
I shrugged. “Maybe.” I didn’t want to promise something only for us both to be disappointed. “I’ll ask him tonight.”
“Okay.” She gave a finite nod and began strolling back across the abandoned playing field, head down, eyes scanning the ground. I stayed in my seat, not really in the mood for searching for those lost objects to be found.
Extract from ‘That which is left is lost’ (Draft)
I chose this example because it has one of the rare instances I actually use ‘said’. However, throughout the whole of the conversation my only other use of dialogue tags consists of ‘replied’ near the beginning. While I might utilise a lot of various dialogue tags, I’m not sure if I should be concerned about it if they appear so infrequently in my text.
Still, it is something to keep an eye on, especially if I have a more complex exchange between a group of people. The critique of my writing is currently limited to one piece on Scribophile, but I can already tell that it is going to identify some interesting analysis of my writing.
For more discussion on Dialogue and the use of tags, check out these sources:
- Scribophile’s Writing Academy: He Said, She Said
- Dialogue Basics from Fiction Factor
- The best five ways to make your characters’ conversations sound real by Writer’s Digest
- How to use dialogue correctly by Writerly Life
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