Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tag debate

He asked VS. He said

Ray Rhamey of Flogging the Quill often cites that using 'he asked' is redundant because the dialogue is already shown as a question. Therefore the tag should be the traditional 'he said' to avoid the anvil of telling the reader that the dialogue was a question.

"So why do so many crit partners flip out over the use of he said when dialogue ends in a question mark?" he asked.

"Is it because we're so used to seeing he asked?" he said.

I consider myself mostly converted. Here's why:

'He said' is a tag to identify the speaker.

'He asked' is a tell of how the dialogue is spoken. Which is then no different than he whispered/ mutttered / sputtered / hissed / or the good old, ejaculated.

As writers, we (I'm sure I'm not alone here) often fixate on little things like this. Are we showing or telling? Are we doing the right one in the right place? Are we insulting the reader's intelligence by telling them that the dialogue a question in case they don't understand what a question mark means?

Oh, so many questions over a single word change. And this one of the many reasons why we're often seen staring off into space looking like we're not doing a darn thing when we say we're writing. We're pondering, debating, skimming our favorite memorized passages of other novels and wrting help books for guidance. Or maybe we really are daydreaming.

Two questions for you:
As a writer, which do you use?
As a reader, does said vs. asked stick out as wrong or does it look natural?


  1. For me, asked is the next most invisible dialogue tag to said, and I use it as religiously. If I have to tag a person to show who they are, and they are asking a question, I'll use asked. It is not colourful like demanded, instructed, inquired and pondered, and thus it doesn't detract from the dialogue. But, just as with "said", if there needs to be a break in use of the dialogue tags, I'll just as soon use an action after a question to designate the speaker.

  2. I'll start with the second question. Firstly, I agree with Ryan that I find "asked" nigh-on invisible.

    I'll go further, and say that as a reader I find a question followed by "said" looks wrong to me. Now, this is probably my nerdy (but not nerdy enough to actually be fashionable) mind at work. With my programming background, the combination of "?" and "said" immediately leaps out as a "type violation". This is where, in programming, you do something like try to add (say) a name and a product code together instead of two numbers. The type of data (in this case a question) is in conflict with the operator ("said", which implies a statement, not a question). I'm not saying that's right, it's just the way my mind works having spent rather more years writing code than novels.

    So in my writing, I find I'm compelled to use "asked" and I have a very hard time doing anything else.

    I have a similar problem with exclamation marks. They seem to demand something stronger than "said".

    In the end, I often try to duck the conflict by using actions alongside the dialogue rather than awkward tags.

  3. I'm all in favor of using beats instead of tags of either asked or said. However, there comes a point where a simple 'He said' keeps things clear without breaking up the flow of the dialogue better than a smattering of action beats.

    So we have two votes for sticking with asked. Anyone else care to cast a vote?


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