One of my favorite lines from Huckleberry Finn is “You can’t pray a lie.”
That doesn’t have much to do with my topic, though I’m sure I could make a good connection if I wanted to. I just like how it goes along with my title, “You can’t shrug a line.”
So. Dialogue tags. In my editing, I see a lot of this:
- “I don’t know,” I shrugged.
- “You bet,” he smiled.
- “Well,” she leaned closer, “we can try.”
- She giggled, “I’d love to!”
And I’m sorry to say, they’re all wrong. Yes, they seem to make sense when you read them, but none of the verbs used here—shrugged, smiled, or leaned—are ways you can deliver a line. You can’t shrug “I don’t know.” You can shrug before, after, or while you say it, but it’s not how you’re saying the line. Even laughing: though we sometimes laugh while we say something, we don’t actually laugh the words.
So here’s a little grammar tidbit and a trick. Verbs are either transitive or intransitive. That means they either have an object or they don’t. You hit a ball: hit is transitive, and the ball is the object. You scowl: scowl is intransitive, because you don’t scowl something. In dialogue, the spoken lines—the words in quotations—are the object of a transitive verb, such as say, reply, answer, ask, yell, scream, blurt, retort, bellow, whisper, sing, etc.
You can test whether your dialogue tag verb is transitive by asking “What did they ___?” For example, if you want to use “scream,” What did he scream? He screamed, “Get out of here!” That definitely works. On the other hand, What did she lean? Uh…no. What did she smile? Well, she probably smiled with her mouth, but she didn’t really smile anything. What did she laugh? I know this one is tempting, because laughing is a vocal thing. But it’s not actually how you say words. It doesn’t make sense to say “This is what she laughed.” Laughing can happen during speaking, but technically you don’t laugh words. (Though you may disagree and choose to use this one anyway.) How about What did he shrug? Well, he probably shrugged his shoulders. So while it is a transitive verb, the object isn’t the dialogue; it’s his shoulders, though that doesn’t have to be stated.
Luckily, there’s an easy fix for this problem. Several possible fixes, in fact.
- You can simply split the sentence, adding the action before or after the dialogue with a period instead of a comma: “I don’t know.” I shrugged. Sometimes it works better to put the action first: I shrugged. “I don’t know.” In this example, you could also add a descriptive tag: I shrugged. “I don’t know,” I admitted. (What did I admit? “I don’t know.”)
- You can insert “said” with a comma and change the verb to the “-ing” form: “I don’t know,” I said, shrugging.
- You can add “with” and change the verb to a noun: “I don’t know,” I said with a shrug.
- For interrupted dialogue with action inserted in the middle of a sentence (such as the leaning example above), em dashes are often the best way to go: “Well—” she leaned closer “—we can try.” In this example, it shows that she pauses for a moment to lean forward. You could also use ellipses in place of the em dashes for a more trailing-off effect. If you don’t want the character to actually pause, but want to insert action, the em dashes go outside of the quotation marks: “I know that you’ve”—she blushed—“said things about me.”
While there are plenty of verbs that can be transitive or intransitive that might give you pause and might not have a hard and fast rule (huff, gasp, snarl, growl), hopefully just being able to stop and do this little test on them will help you decide whether or not it’s the way someone can deliver a line. And luckily, if you’re intent on using them as dialogue tags anyway and call it a style choice, that’s up to you! (she said with a shrug).