Writer’s Wisdom: Bookism: The Silent Threat to Good Writing

When creating fiction, writers inevitable learn to write dialogue. Supposedly a novel somewhere exists that doesn’t have dialogue, but has anyone seen it? The key to good dialogue is attributing the spoken words to the proper character, so readers instantly know who is saying them.

We do this by using dialogue tags: “The last time I heard this song by Charlie Rich,” Liam said, “you were young, adventurous and in love with me.”

The words Liam said is a direct dialogue tag. It tells the reader without fuss or doubt that Liam said those words inside those quotation marks.

Another method of informing readers of who said what is through an action by the character. This is technically not called a dialogue tag, but it does the same job.

For example: “This was my favourite show when I was a kid.” Judy grabbed the clicker and turned up the volume. “My brothers and I watched it every Saturday morning.”

Both these methods of indicating who said what are clean and non-distracting. Readers often won’t notice them, which means they won’t be nudged or jerked from the story, but will continue to read without interruption.

Bookism, the Silence Threat

Bookism is the term used when words other than said, asked and whispered are used in dialogue tags. Similar words that truly define a manner of speaking can be used sparingly: shouted, yelled, cried and screamed.

Verbs—except for said—in dialogue tags are million-dollar words. In other words, they should be used sparingly.

Exaggerating the use of bookism produces this type of dialogue…

“Kris,” blurted Billy.

“Kristofferson?” questioned Freda.

“Is there any other?” he quipped.

“Not for Sunday Morning Coming Down,” she asserted.

“Or Me and Bobby McGee,” he shrieked.

“I could play it now,” she teased, holding up the 45.

“Oh, you must!” he hissed.

“It’ll cost you,” she grinned.

“I’ve got a dime,” remarked Billy.

“I’ll take a dollar,” demanded Freda.

“Sold,” he bellowed.

This was exaggerated to make a point. However, stories that overuse these types of dialogue tags exist. The authors put a lot of work into finding words to use instead of said, but it was unnecessary.

When reading bellowed, hissed and asserted, readers may pause for a fraction of a second to imagine the facial expressions or the emotions described by them. This reminds them they are reading a story and they become less consumed in the lives of the characters and more aware of their surroundings in real life. That’s not the goal of the writer. Instead, we want readers so absorbed in the story, they forget about time, commitments, eating and where they are.

Rewriting the above section using said or no dialogue tags might look like this…

“Kris,” said Billy.

“Kristofferson?” asked Freda.

“Is there any other?”

“Not for Sunday Morning Coming Down.”

“Or Me and Bobby McGee.”

“I could play it now.” She held up the 45.

“Oh, you must!”

“It’ll cost you.”

“I’ve got a dime,” he said.

“I’ll take a dollar.”

“Sold.”

A character’s name should be mentioned only when it is unclear who is doing the talking or the action. Because the above conversation involved a male and a female, she or he can be used to confirm who was speaking.

If the conversation was between two men (or two women), mentioning one of their names after several lines keeps readers informed. One of the complaints from readers when they encounter a full page of dialogue is they have to go back and see who was saying what because lines weren’t tagged properly. This harshly jerks readers out of the story and they may put down the book, remembering they have to cut the lawn.

Overworking Dialogue Tags

Obviously, dialogue tags shouldn’t do all the work. If they are, it means characters sound the same, and there’s nothing about the manner in which they speak or what they say to distinguish them from one another.

Blame it on the public school English teachers. Their excuse is: We want students to broaden their vocabulary.

A fair response to this is: Wouldn’t it be better to broaden their vocabulary by introducing stronger verbs rather than butchering dialogue tags and forcing those who want to become fiction writers to unlearn bookism?

Telling someone to search for words other than said to use as dialogue tags is the same as telling someone who is underweight to add pounds by eating chocolate bars and potatoes chips instead of fruits and vegetables. The goal might be reached, but the after effects are harmful.

Is Doubt Clouding Your Thoughts?

If you doubt what has been written, refer to the following posts, and then do your own research.

Keep it Simple: Keys to Realistic Dialogue (Part II), a Writer’s Digest article

9 Easily Preventable Mistakes Writers Make with Dialogue by Joanna Penn

The journey of writing a story is a wild ride. Hold on tightly, and let imagination soar.

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