Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Dialog Tags by Award-Winning J. Michael Orenduff

Welcome to my mountaintop, Mike. I've been a reader-fan since I read The Pot Thief Who Studied Einstein. You arrived at a good time. The sun's shining and the snow's melting. Have a cuppa coffee and tell us about dialog tags.

Robert Parker was one of the most successful crime writers of all time, having penned almost seventy books in the Spenser, Jesse Stone and Sunny Randall series.  He wrote a thousand words every day, no more and no less. His many books in the pipeline led me to quip a year after his death that he had published more books dead than I have alive. 
In a review of one of Parker’s books shortly before he died, I was surprised by the reviewer’s criticism of Parker’s reliance on “he said” and “I said” in dialog. I had read all his books and never noticed any overuse of dialog tags. So I grabbed a Parker off the shelf and started reading. The reviewer was right. Parker ended most sentences in his dialogs with “he said,” “she said” or “I said.” I was astonished that I had never noticed. I finally put it down to Parker’s prose being so good that he could get away with it.
If I could miss that in Robert Parker, maybe I could also miss it in my own writing. So I reviewed my own use of dialog tags. I found I didn’t use them as frequently as Parker.  But I did notice in my review of my dialogs that my most successful ones used fewer or no tags at all.
In the time since I read that review, I’ve given a lot of thought to dialog tags. I always notice them when I read. I have come to believe the best dialog has no tags.

“I can’t believe this is happening to me.”
“It’s the restaurant syndrome, Hubie.”
“Restaurant syndrome? I’ve never heard of it."
“Maybe you know it by its original name, le syndrome de restaurant.”
I groaned. “Please, no more French words and phrases."
“But that’s it. That’s the syndrome. You start working in a restaurant, and you have to learn all those French terms. It begins to affect your thinking, like the twins thing.”
“The twins thing?”
“Yeah. You know, like how twins have this special language that makes it easy for them to communicate with each other, but it messes them up when they try to deal with normal people. Restaurant workers are like that. We may start out normal, but after you begin using words like prix fixe, hors-d’œuvres, à la carte, escargots, and raison d'être, you get a little crazy.”
Raison d'être?”
“I think it’s a raisin soufflé.”

This passage is a conversation between my protagonist, Hubie, and his sidekick, Susannah. The context makes it clear they are alone at a table in their favorite watering hole. How does the reader know the first speaker is Hubie? Because he is the one having problems. But even if the reader didn’t make the connection, it is clear Hubie is speaking because the response mentions him. If could have started the dialog with: “I can’t believe this is happening to me,” I said

That would not be bad. But I like it better without the tag. People don’t use dialog tags when they speak, so keeping tags out of your dialog makes it easier for the reader to fall into that perfect state of mind when reading dialog – thinking you are there listening to the characters.


Former New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson wrote of Michael Orenhuff's mystery: "The Pot Thief Who Studied Pythagoras has all the components of a great read – an intricate plot, quirky characters, crackling dialog, and a surprise ending. What’s more, Orenduff successfully captures the essence of New Mexico through humor, romance, and even a little philosophical musing. New Mexico’s rich history, people, food, and landscape come alive on its pages. . ." 

You can visit the Lefty award-winning author at his website: http://www.orenduff.org/


  1. I totally agree with you. The words said and asked are far better than all the other ones we used to use long ago--remarked, quizzed etc.--because they aren't so noticeable. I try to use an action when I need one, but sometimes said is all that seems to work.

  2. Mike, This is a wonderful post.

    In my opinion, the reason you didn't notice 'he said' and 'she said,' in Parker's work (until it was pointed out to you by some reviewer who thought good writing was only those always written with perfect grammar) is that these attributions are invisible to the American reader. I decided that after reading Elmore Leonard's wonderful books.

    Maybe I'm denser than other readers, but sometimes skipping 'Susan said' and 'Agnes said,' (more thant three times in a row) causes me to get confused about who is speaking. I have to stop and count back, and that makes me want to find another book to read.

    But like I said, my brain may need a tuneup.

    Your post is excellent, and I think you must be an amazing writing teacher.


  3. Mike I agree with you about dialogue tags. Raymond Carver seldom used them, and when he did, it was often for the rhythm of the "poem" he was putting together. Of course the worst of offenses is the Tom Swifty adverb ending in "ly." As in, "take that," he said threateningly.

  4. Good post, Mike, on an interesting topic.

    I think I use too many dialogue tags -- my editors often say too few, and suggest I put them in. Think it's an art, and specific to a writer's style and desired effect.