Sean Dexter, author of Denial of Duty and the Jackson Burke Thrillers
Dialogue Tags (“Tom Swifties”)
Tom Swifties are most often considered pun related. For example: "I only have diamonds, clubs and spades," said Tom heartlessly. The term derives from the style of writing used in the Tom Swift series of books written by a group of authors collectively known as Victor Appleton. More recently, the term has been used to describe hackneyed writing—thus the term hack writer. New writers sometimes use this type of writing because they feel it spices up their work. It doesn't. Some examples (created by me because I'm too lazy to look at an actual copy of a Tom Swift book) are shown below:
“ I've told you once before, and I won’t say it again,” Tom repeated redundantly.
“Do you think I can fly to the top of that tree,” Tom queried sardonically.
The point I'm trying to make here is that the use of said as a dialogue tag is almost always the right choice.
Examples of things to avoid:
“Give it me,” she demanded.
“Here it is,” he proffered.
Or even worse:
“I hate to admit that,” he giggled. (It’s impossible to giggle while speaking.)
“I’ve had it,” she retorted angrily.
"How dare you," she hissed. (Try doing that some time.)
These tags are used to explain the character’s emotions. Instead of elaborate and clichéd tags, writers should use beats (a bit of physical action or stage business). This is the show, don’t tell rule of fiction writing.
Ex: “I’ve had it,” she responded angrily. This should be “I’ve had it,” she said. Her hand slapped the table so hard the empty whiskey glasses danced.
Ex: “I hate to admit that,” he giggled. This should be “I hate to admit that,” he said. He giggled like a school girl.
And finally, the name or pronoun should always come first in a tag.
Ex: “I am leaving,” said Bill. This should be “I'm leaving,” Bill said. Putting ‘Bill’ last, is the same thing as saying “I'm leaving,” said he. Unless you are Gilbert and/or Sullivan, this just doesn’t sound right.
Please let me know if you have any questions.
Good luck and good writing, SD
To be continued…