One of the joys of reading short stories or novels is being transported into a different life, a different country, a different perspective. But when an author inadvertently makes his or her presence suddenly known, it’s jolting for the reader to be jerked back into reality.
Sometimes an author commits the sin of “telling, not showing,” by unnecessarily explaining what should be obvious to the reader—or what the reader would prefer to work out on their own. Other times it can be simply be a matter of dialogue tags that puts a halt to the smooth flow of an otherwise good read.
Opinions vary on the use of dialogue tags (or speech tags—“he said,” “she said,” etc.). Some writers believe these tags should be widely varied. Others believe that a simple “he said” is somehow invisible to the reader, letting the dialogue move forth smoothly on its own. And while I believe that a little variation is a good thing, one of my pet peeves is reading dialogue where I can practically see the author flipping through a thesaurus, searching for new ways to spice up the conversation. An example:
“Joan, how are you doing?” I inquired.
“I am doing quite well,” she retorted, then queried, “What have you been up to?”
“Well…” I prevaricated.
When I read an interchange like this, I am instantly irritated. The sheer effort required to come up with “interesting” speech tags comes across loud and clear, taking me away from the dialogue itself—and defeating the original purpose of the story. If you want to transport your reader, let your writing flow smoothly, and resist the urge to wear out your thesaurus in the process. Sometimes a simple “he said/she said” is all that’s required.