In the first post I published on this blog, I bemoaned the reductive nature of writing advice. “If you write like everyone else,” I wrote, “your writing will read like everyone else’s. I have gotten away from that theme over the years, but today I wish to return to it. Over the next few months, I will present a series of blogs that deal with common pieces of writing advice, and then present a famous work by a successful author which breaks those rules. My aim is not to criticize these authors—I enjoy all of them, that is the point. Rather, I present their works as examples of successfully writing, which might cause you to reexamine the writing “rule” critically. I am not advising you to ignore these rules, rather to take control of your own craft, and consider your choices actively. As always, I believe there is more than one path to success, more than one formula for great writing. Consider these posts synecdochally. The specific rule is not the point; it speaks to a general attitude which is prevalent within the contemporary writing community.
In each blog post in this series, I will give a brief summary of the rule, followed by a case study of a successful author, work, or series that breaks that rule. Finally, I will provide some analysis of the rule and the alternative techniques the featured author makes. Since the posts in this series will not necessarily be consecutive blog entries, I will link each piece to previous entries.
The Rule: Invisible Dialogue Tags
One of the more common pieces of writing advice is to try to make your dialogue tags invisible. Write “said” rather than a more descriptive tag such as “exclaimed,” “lamented,” “cried,” etc. Theoretically, the word “said” is invisible; the reader does not notice it because it is so common. Moreover, the content of the dialogue should be sufficient, along with your descriptions of your characters’ actions and facial expressions, to “show” the emotion inherent in the statement. You should not have to “tell” the reader how your character feels.
Case Study: Timothy Zahn
By any measure, Timothy Zahn is a successful science fiction author. His Stars Wars novels created the Extended Universe, and his most famous character, Grand Admiral Thrawn, is one of the few characters to survive Disney’s recent retcon. Zahn also won the Hugo award, the most prestigious award in the science fiction field, long before he started writing his Star Wars books. On a personal note, I have read and enjoyed Zahn’s books since high school. I have probably read more pages by him than any author except for Terry Pratchett.
Zahn has achieved this success despite not following the convention of invisible dialogue tags. As you will see from the examples below, he uses descriptive tags regularly, and even—and this so-called rule will be the subject of the next post in this series—the dreaded adverb.
Here is a page from early in his latest book, Greater Good, which is part of the Thrawn Ascendancy trilogy. The relevant dialogue tags are highlighted.
The dialogue on this page includes “growled” (twice), “countered” and “said stiffly.” Although it does include a few traditional “said” tags as well. It would seem that Zahn does not always use “said,” and he certainly does not use the extent recommended by the “writing experts.”
Perhaps, you may be thinking, that as a best-selling, famous author, Zahn can get away with things that you or I can’t. I thought that might be the case as well, so I took a look at some of his earlier works. As it turns out, the dialogue tags on the above page are fairly typical of his writing.
Consider this page from Heir to the Empire, Zahn’s first Star Wars book:
If anything, the dialogue tags are more varied. Zahn uses “asked,” “reminded him,” “insisted,” “snorted,” and “agreed.”
You can see the same style in the following page, from Zahn’s 1984 novel Spinneret, which features tags like “frowned,” “groweled” (again), “interrupted suddenly,” and “agreed.”
Clearly, Zahn has been using varied dialogue tags throughout his career, and clearly it has not affected his ability to get published or his book sales.
Why is Zahn able to write successfully despite flouting the conventions of dialogue tags? I think the answer is pretty simple: He writes great characters and great stories. The fact that he created a lasting, memorable character like Thrawn is way more important to his success than whether or not he follows some minor craft convention, such as sing invisible dialogue tags.
As a community, I think we have become too obsessed with the minutiae of craft, fueled by the cottage industry of writing advice. It is much easier to critique someone’s dialogue tags after a superficial read than to get into the weeds and examine why the storytelling and characterization work or don’t work. I also believe that as a community, we discuss craft on a sentence and technique level to a far greater extent than we discuss basic storytelling and characterization. Like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis, I blame the modernists, but that’s a subject for another blog post.
To this point, I never noticed that Zahn broke convention when I read him in high school. I only began to notice it when I became a “writer” and began to be inundated with advice proclaiming conventional writing rules. It is important to realize that the majority of readers are not writers and do not read with an eye for such things.
Moreover, in doing this analysis, I realized that I tend to notice these breaks in conventions early on in a novel. The first example I chose was page 11 of a 400+ page book. This caused me to think of other unconventional dialogue techniques, such as the decision of certain “literary” writers such as Cormac McCarthy and Junot Diaz not to use quotation marks. Like Zhan’s descriptive dialogue tags, the unconventional use of dialogue trips me up toward the beginning of the novel, but I tend not to notice it as the work goes on.
It is my contentions that, with consistent usage, most styles of writing dialogue become invisible over the course of a longer work.