He Mumbled, Groaned, Hissed, Spat, Purred, Whispered

As part of my Daughter Am I Blog Tour festivities, I am exchanging blogs with Aaron Lazar. I am blogging at Murder by 4, and he is blogging here. Lucky for me!  

Aaron Paul Lazar writes to soothe his soul. The author of LeGarde Mysteries and Moore Mysteries enjoys the Genesee Valley countryside in upstate New York, where his characters embrace life, play with their dogs and grandkids, grow sumptuous gardens, and chase bad guys. Visit his websites at www.legardemysteries.com and www.mooremysteries.com and watch for his upcoming releases, HEALEY’S CAVE (2010), FIRESONG: AN UNHOLY GRAE (2010), and ONE POTATO, BLUE POTATO (2011).  Aaron talks about dialogue tags: 

When I first started writing over a decade ago, I exulted in every new dialog tag I could think up. I preened over “he croaked” and purred over “she grumbled.” Finding new and inventive ways to say “he said” became my quest.

My early works were peppered with gloats, murmurs, and barks. I even started a most coveted (only by me) list. 

How many words can you think of to say “he said” or “she said?” Here are some, in no particular order:

Mumbled
Murmured
Expostulated
Grunted
Groaned
Whispered
Purred
Spat
Huffed
Croaked
Barked
Choked
Queried
Cackled
Harrumphed
Stuttered
Muttered
Moaned
Hissed
Grumbled
Whined
Sang
Twittered
Tittered
Griped
Yelped
Cried
Stammered
Shrieked
Crooned
Wheedled
Retorted
Pressured
Cajoled

How many more can you think of? There are probably hundreds.

Okay, now that you’ve wracked your brain for tantalizing tags, let me tell you one very important lesson.

DON’T * EVER * USE * THEM

What? Such brilliance? Such innovative thought? 

Yeah. Sorry. Forget it. Never use anything but “said,” “asked,” or an occasional “whisper” or “mumble.” 

Once in a great while, if you feel you really need it, slip in a “spat” or “croaked.” But I’m here to tell you that dialog tags, for the most part, should be invisible. “Said,” is invisible. “Asked,” is invisible. “Barked” stops the flow of the dialog. Anything that makes your story stutter needs to be eliminated, including these juicy but totally distracting tags. 

Got that part? 

Now that I’ve encouraged you to use “said,” I’m going to retract it. 

Forgive me, but that’s just the way it is. If you can avoid a tag altogether–through the clever use of action “beats”– then more power to you. 

Here’s an example of changing a passage from lush useless tags, to he said/she said tags, to using beats instead of tags: 

Case A:

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          “Want me to take over?” Tony wheedled.
          “Why? Am I making you nervous?” I retorted, gripping the steering wheel until my knuckles turned white.
          “Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break,” he crooned.
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
         “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony groaned.

Case B

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          “Want me to take over?” Tony said, leaning on the dashboard.
          “Why? Am I making you nervous?” I said with a frown.
          All smiles, he said, “Of course not, sweetums. You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
          “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire,” Tony said in a panic. 

Case C

          I maneuvered the van around the next pothole, and was about to congratulate myself for my superior driving skills when a series of washboard ruts nearly popped the fillings out of my teeth.
          Tony braced himself on the dash. “Want me to take over?”
          My knuckles turned white. “Why? Am I making you nervous?”
          “Of course not, sweetums.” He forced an innocent smile. “You’re a great driver. Just thought you might want a break.”
          We rounded the bend and the road disappeared. The crater before us could hold three elephants. Big elephants.
          Tony’s frozen smile barely hid his panic. “Whoa! Watch it, honey. Don’t wanna blow a tire.”

***

These examples aren’t beautifully written or perfectly rendered. But they should give you the gist of what I’m trying to illustrate today. 

Add your own examples below, if you’d like. Let’s see some Case A, B, and C’s in the comments section!

copyright Aaron Lazar 2009

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17 Responses to “He Mumbled, Groaned, Hissed, Spat, Purred, Whispered”

  1. Aaron Says:

    Thanks, Pat! It’s great to be here again. And welcome to your readers who may stop over at Murder*by*4!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      We need to do this more often, Aaron! I am especially glad to have your dialogue tag article. I’ve been meaning to write one, but never got around to it. Now I don’t have to!

  2. joylene Says:

    I had to stop and look up WHEEDLED. Great post, Aaron. More and more writers need to hear this stuff. Oh, my favourite is Example C. It really put me there.

  3. Gale Laure Says:

    Boy was I surprised at the definition of “wheedled”. I thought it was a bodily function of some sort. Thanks for letting me learn a new word for today. It has a much nobler meaning than I thought.

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      I didn’t realize wheedled was such an uncommon word. It should make an interesting bit of dialogue — one character says “Don’t try to wheedle it out of me,” and the other character gets all huffy, thinking she’s being insulted.

  4. Aaron Says:

    LOL! Yeah, I don’t use wheedled much, but it’s a good one. Thanks, Joylene, Gayle, and Pat!

  5. Norm Brown Says:

    You’ve hit on one of my pet peeves as a reader. Those strange attribute words really make me stumble over dialogue. To have to stop and look one up might bring my reading to a screeching halt.
    In my own writing I find that if the conversation is only between two people, you hardly ever need any attribution at all. The content of the dialogue can often make it clear who’s speaking. More than two possible speakers, and your action “beats” are my favorite way to go.

    • Aaron Says:

      Thanks, Norm. I love trying to do a conversation with no beats and tags, and make it clear (as you said) who’s saying what. It’s fun. ;o)

  6. Sheila Deeth Says:

    I like your list, and your examples. Thanks.

  7. artambrosia Says:

    So glad I’ve been doing it right, if not always really well. The rewrites would be terrible!

    A. I love you. She whispered.
    B. Whispering, she said, “I love you.”
    C. She whispered softly as she brushed his ear with her lips. “I love you.”

    Not my best work,

    Tracey W.

  8. knightofswords Says:

    I hope you were NOT using Tom Swifities when you started out, i.e., stuff like:

    “Pass me the sugar,” she said sweetly.

    M

  9. Aaron Says:

    LOL. I haven’t heard that term before, M. After reading Stephen King’s “On Writing,” my adverb adventures became a rare event!

    • Pat Bertram Says:

      Tom Swifties are so much fun.

      “Fire!” Tom yelled alarmingly.

      “You put too much vinegar in the salad dressing,” Tom said acidly.

      “I love modern art,” Tom said abstractedly.

      “I was exonerated,” Tom said clearly.

      “I’m getting married,” Tom said engagingly.

      “I hope this boat doesn’t spring a leak,” Tom said balefully.

  10. Sheila Deeth Says:

    Ah yes, I remember this. And I’ve even tried to put it into action in my writing. Lots of first draft tags. Lots of deleted tags on editing.


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