Let pollocks be pollocks – a little chat about dialogue tags

On Facebook, I was having a deeply serious conversation about the use of exclamation marks, and my friend Indigo Roth said this:

Should it be:

“Pollocks,” he exclaimed.

Or

“Pollocks!” he exclaimed.

(Indigo actually used a more anatomical word, but I don’t want to get my blog blacklisted for bad language so I have used a substitute.) Anyway, we were saying…

Without the exclamation mark, said Indigo, it’s hard to get the impact in dialogue.

I replied:

Just write “Pollocks.” I wouldn’t bother mentioning that he has exclaimed it. The word already has the impact you need.

‘No shouty?!’ said Indigo.

No shouty, I said.

But,’ said Indigo, ‘how did he say it? Quietly? At a bellow? Isn’t the supporting explanation necessary? Though in general, I prefer less enthusiastic punctuation.’

Aha, I said, do you need a supporting explanation? Think of the scene. Presumably, whoever ‘pollocks’ is being said to will react more to the word ‘pollocks’ than to any tone it’s said in, unless the tone is very unexpected, such as a giggle. In that case, it’s worth stating how it’s said because that’s extra important information. Otherwise, I would let pollocks be pollocks.

Here, the discussion ended, but this leads to another question. What effect do you want?

If you add an explanation of how pollocks is said, you interpose yourself between the reader and the text. If that’s your intention, good.Much depends on your book’s style. You might be deliberately shepherding the reader – for instance, if your book has an obvious narrator, the reader is experiencing everything through a filter. Similarly, if your book has a comic tone but the narrator is not a character, the narrative might have a sensibility that comes across in this kind of descriptive line (‘pollocks,’ he spluttered).

But otherwise, the reader will connect more directly with the characters if the dialogue tags are low key. ‘Pollocks,’ he said. Don’t be afraid to use ‘said’. It’s almost invisible, which lets your characters’ own words shine.

Also, I might be tempted to leave the tag off altogether. Not every line needs one. It may be obvious from the order of paragraphs who said what, so you don’t have to label each line. The punctuation will tell the reader the word was spoken out loud, so you don’t need a dialogue tag for that reason.

And if you’ve used a word or a statement that is strong enough, and the reader knows the characters well, you can try letting it stand on its own.

‘Luke, I am your father,’ he bellowed – here, we might connect more to the writer than the characters, because we are seeing the writer’s experience of the moment.

‘Luke, I am your father.’ Wow. The writer got right out of the way. I’m sharing the moment with Luke.

Speech bubbles pic by Petr Kratochvil

PS There’s loads more about dialogue in my characters book

PPS If you’re curious about my own creative writing, find novels here and my travel memoir here. And if you’re curious about what’s been going on on at my own writing desk, here’s my latest newsletter. You can subscribe to future updates here.

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  1. #1 by CARAMEL on July 18, 2021 - 3:58 pm

    I sometimes think as a reader, I see words and animate them myself. I usually read the description of a character and then find they resemble someone I know…from then on, everything the fictional character says merges with the real life person I know and I find I think of the way they would say it.

    I don’t worry too much about how other writers form their passages of dialogue, only as a reader, I have to admit that sometimes I need reminding who is speaking in an exchange. I often read at night when I am tired. Dialogue can be the most enjoyable part of a lot of stories/books, but when I am half-asleep, I need the writer to intersperse every now and then a little reminder of which character is speaking!

    • #2 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 18, 2021 - 9:33 pm

      Hi Caramel – you’re so right! Confusion isn’t good. But a good writer will be able to judge when the reader needs a reminder and when they don’t. Thanks for stopping by!

  2. #3 by rajatnarula on July 18, 2021 - 4:28 pm

    Such a thought-provoking post!

  3. #5 by dgkaye on July 20, 2021 - 2:30 am

    Excellent tutorial Roz. So many editors try to squash out that danged exclamation mark, lol. I have to admit to being guilty of hard to let go. 🙂

    • #6 by Roz Morris @Roz_Morris on July 20, 2021 - 6:25 am

      They’re so easy to use, aren’t they, Debby? Because we are enthusiastic people. Thanks for stopping by.

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