Show, Don’t Tell and Those Pesky Dialogue Tags

If you’ve been writing fiction, you’ve surely heard the phrase Show, don’t tell. But what does that mean, really?

A lot of different things, actually. There are a myriad ways to tell, and I’m working on that post. It will probably be longish. :) But here’s one small variant on the show-don’t-tell spectrum you should take into consideration.

A Twitter follower recently asked me something that gave me pause. He’d just read my post that advises “just use said” for a dialogue tag. Not “he growled” or “she groaned.” Not “she replied” or “he spat.” Not shouted or murmured, not grunted, not whispered. (Not in a house, not with a mouse …)

“This might seem like an elementary question,” he said, “but how else can emotion be conveyed?”

It’s a fair enough question. I think about these things every day, but if you are just starting to practice the craft and want to learn, you need to know the answer.

So here it is: You convey emotion through dialogue, action (also called a beat), and body language, just as you do in real life. And then you step back and give your readers credit for being smart enough to read between the lines. The examples above—we call them said substitutes—are, in the simplest form, telling. Particularly something like he added or objected or retorted. Your dialogue should already make it clear that your character is adding something to the conversation, or objecting to something another character said, or offering a snappy retort. (And resist, please, the urge to write something like: “‘Do you have Prince Albert in a can?’ Joey was just being funny.” We know, we know.)

Now, I’ll admit, I like hissed as a said substitute. It’s very evocative—it can convey urgency or anger or just a loud whisper. (It should be noted, of course, that unless your sentence is loaded with sibilants—“She sells seashells by the seashore”—hiss isn’t an appropriate choice for a tag.) So it’s okay to use a said substitute every once in awhile for extra emphasis. But make it count. And don’t use it more than once.

But really you can make it without them. Look at this lovely example from a romance by Becky Melby, about a guy and a gal getting to know one another:

She sat on the couch and pulled her knees to her chest. “Ryan?”
“Yes?”
“I’m a mess.”
His laugh was whisper-soft. “How do you mean that?”

You understand what’s going on here, don’t you? I thought so.

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2 Comments

  1. However, when I need to produce an AUDIO version of that dialog using just one reader, confusion can reign. A scene with two speakers, one male and one female isn’t hard, but you write a scene with a family of girls around a table with a mom and dad and everybody is talking—yeesh!

  2. jamiechavez says:

    And you would know a little something about a family of gals. :)
    I can see where that would be an issue. But I think a book has to be written as a book, without worry about what the audio version might be. That kind of recording, I’m sure, is an ART unto itself!

  3. […] snapped or he retorted) or an adverbial dialogue tag (like she said tiredly or he asked hopefully). We’ve discussed this before; you should keep it to a […]

  4. […] • Prune dialogue tags, and eliminate the adverbial ones. […]

  5. […] my post on telling. That is, I have, indeed, written my post on telling: this is it. (And here’s a related one.) But I had this little brain fart the other day—I learn so much from you guys!—and thought it […]

  6. […] written a little about dialogue myself: here, here, and here, for […]

  7. […] story. I was having a little go-round with an author over adverbial dialogue tags and said substitutes in her (upper) middle grade dark fantasy. That is, she didn’t believe me when I told her they […]

  8. […] for a few minutes. Haven’t we discussed this? Repeatedly? Yes. Yes, we have. Just use said. Show, don’t tell. No, really, just use […]

6 Trackbacks

  1. By Objection! Leading the Witness, Yer Honor. on 10 January, 2013 at 5:45 pm

    […] snapped or he retorted) or an adverbial dialogue tag (like she said tiredly or he asked hopefully). We’ve discussed this before; you should keep it to a […]

  2. By Tighten It Up on 11 April, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    […] • Prune dialogue tags, and eliminate the adverbial ones. […]

  3. By My Brain Fart on Telling on 29 August, 2013 at 3:41 pm

    […] my post on telling. That is, I have, indeed, written my post on telling: this is it. (And here’s a related one.) But I had this little brain fart the other day—I learn so much from you guys!—and thought it […]

  4. By Short Saturday: Tips for Better Dialogue on 30 November, 2013 at 4:37 pm

    […] written a little about dialogue myself: here, here, and here, for […]

  5. By Adventures in Editorland: Dialogue Tags Edition on 2 April, 2015 at 5:51 pm

    […] story. I was having a little go-round with an author over adverbial dialogue tags and said substitutes in her (upper) middle grade dark fantasy. That is, she didn’t believe me when I told her they […]

  6. By Snicker, Sputter, and Snarl on 7 September, 2015 at 3:35 pm

    […] for a few minutes. Haven’t we discussed this? Repeatedly? Yes. Yes, we have. Just use said. Show, don’t tell. No, really, just use […]