Writing Glitch #135

Today’s (second) glitch:


A lot of people have trouble knowing the difference between a dialogue tag (tells who said it and maybe how it was said) and an associated action. This confusion is (part of) why so many writers think it’s possible to smile a line of dialogue, or for a character to roll their eyes and have speech come out. (That is exactly what the writer is saying — whether they realize it or not — if they give you a sentence such as, He rolled his eyes, “I’m so sick of this.”) The unnamed English teacher/writing instructor who first started referring to both tags and actions as “beats” and got so many other people into the same bad habit has a lot to answer for…

You don’t have to choose between a tag and an associated action. You don’t have to use either one, although completely ignoring them will result in a bad case of “talking heads” in your story, and readers won’t have any idea of who is talking or what they’re doing. You can use both. You can alternate between them as you think appropriate. What you shouldn’t do (notice I am not saying you can’t — you can write any damn nonsensical thing you please) is to treat them as the same thing.

Look at the sample sentence. What’s the dialogue tag? That’s the he said part, right? Do we know if the speaker is doing anything other than just speaking? Yes. He’s also running his fingers through his hair. That’s why you need a comma after said.

“I never thought I’d end up here,” he said, running his fingers through his hair.

You could also choose to leave out the comma and add while after said: “I never thought I’d end up here,” he said while running his fingers through his hair. I think the former version flows better, though.



About Thomas Weaver

I’m a writer and editor who got into professional editing almost by accident years ago when a friend from university needed someone to copyedit his screenplay about giant stompy robots (mecha). Having discovered that I greatly enjoy this kind of work, I’ve been putting my uncanny knack for grammar and punctuation, along with an eclectic mental collection of facts, to good use ever since as a Wielder of the Red Pen of Doom. I'm physically disabled, and for the past several years, I’ve lived with my smugly good-looking twin Paul, who writes military science fiction and refuses to talk about his military service because he can’t. Sometimes Paul and I collaborate on stories, and sometimes I just edit whatever he writes. It's worked out rather well so far. My list of non-writing-related jobs from the past includes librarian, art model, high school teacher, science lab gofer… Although I have no spouse or offspring to tell you about, I do have six cats. (The preferred term is "Insane Cat Gentleman.") I currently spend my time blogging, reading, editing, and fending off cats who like my desk better than my twin’s.
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9 Responses to Writing Glitch #135

  1. Thanks for this, this is an area where I struggle…. and might be the last straw that breaks the camels back and drives my editor towards the bottle! 😛 (**Please don’t edit this!**)

    Liked by 1 person

    • Don’t worry — editors like to feel needed. 🙂 And (in my opinion, anyway) correcting comma glitches is far easier than trying to overhaul a wonky subplot.

      Liked by 1 person

      • This is true, right now I’m fixing the plot points (new for me) because we changed things at the last minute to make my work flow within his universe. There isn’t anything MAJOR but it IS a pain in the butt to fix it. Lesson learned, in my outline include character arc AND the basic events that happen. And yes, my editor gets to feel VERY needed this go around!! 🙂

        Heck, he might even ask for a higher percentage!! LOL

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Well #%*@ off I go to add a comma or three thousand!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Dialogue including the tags can be so tricky. I’m just learning that “said” is the best verb to use for it. I always thought it was better to switch things up, but apparently it counts against you if you use too much variety. I’ve tried to cut mine down to the fore mentioned “said,” but I’ll still use “whisper,” and “murmur,” since it’s also considered taboo to overuse adverbs (or use that at all if you heed Stephen King).

    Liked by 1 person

    • 1) Stephen King used several adverbs (around a dozen, I recall, not counting the ones he used as examples of what not to do) in his famous essay on why adverbs are bad, so I don’t recommend paying much attention to him on that. (Stephen King offers a lot of writing advice that he doesn’t follow himself.)

      2) It is not possible to eliminate all adverbs without being grammatically incorrect or extremely awkward (or both). ANY word that modifies a verb functions as an adverb, even when that word is technically something else (such as when people write “run fast” in order to avoid the adverb “quickly”).

      3) Some people prefer that “said” be the only verb used in dialogue tags; some prefer to mix it up a bit and use other verbs if the words themselves don’t make it clear how the words are spoken. (When I took a theater/acting course in high school, there was an exercise we did in which the lines were very simple, but we had to make them into all sorts of different situations by HOW we said those lines: the exact same lines became everything from a happy reunion of old friends to a tense encounter between enemy spies.) In my opinion, the ones who insist on using only “said” are guilty of the same sort of mindset as those who preach against any use of adverbs: They (or their teachers) find it easier to say “Never do this!” than to learn (or explain) how and when it’s appropriate and even preferable to do whatever it is.

      “Said” blends into the background. Sometimes you WANT the dialogue tag to disappear; it’s only there to help the reader keep track of who’s speaking. Sometimes, though, you want the verb to carry some weight.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I’m very much a “listen to the advice and do what I want anyway” type of writer. I’ll take it into account and respect the masters, but everyone does have their same style, and you’re right. Some adverbs are necessary because there isn’t a verb that’s going to adequately express your sentiment without it. I don’t like “never” rules either, and while I certainly don’t recommend using a tag like “ejaculated” for speaking because of our current (and often immature) times, I will use “sighed,” because I can sigh words.

        Writing is subjective and while there are some good rules and suggestions to follow, you’re never going to please everyone.

        Liked by 1 person

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