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

add to del.icio.us : Add to Blinkslist : add to furl : Digg it : Stumble It! : add to simpy : seed the vine : : : TailRank : post to facebook