Dialogue Tags: Let's talk about talking

"Said is dead," proclaimed an infographic I just scrolled past on Pinterest. It boasted several replacements for the old standard of dialogue tags, including words like "interjected," "dictated," and "chortled."

Hmm, I pontificated. I think this is blog-worthy.

Irene Stanhope
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"Said is dead," proclaimed an infographic I just scrolled past on Pinterest. It boasted several replacements for the old standard of dialogue tags, including words like "interjected," "dictated," and "chortled."

Hmm, I pontificated. I think this is blog-worthy.

What are dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag is the part of a line of dialogue that tells you who's speaking. Tags help readers keep up with the conversations going on in your book. And despite what our infographic-designing pinner believes, simple tags still work very well.

I think some writers like to use a variety of tags because they're trying to avoid being repetitive. Generally speaking, that is a good idea--you do want to avoid repetition when you're writing. This is an exception, though. A dialogue tag's job is to guide a reader through a conversation, and they work best when they're subtle. If tags are too obvious, they can stand out more than the actual dialogue, which is distracting. They can also create a filter between the reader and the story, so it feels like you're telling the reader how the characters are talking instead of giving them a chance to imagine it on their own.

Words like "said" and "asked" are so basic that they're almost invisible. They do the job without getting in the way, and you shouldn't be afraid to rely on them. If the scene calls for it, you might throw in "whispered," or "shouted," or something along those lines. The key is to keep it simple for the most part. Save things like "he thundered triumphantly," for special occasions becase that sort of thing can get annoying fast.

Avoid repetition with action beats

You don't have to use a dialogue tag every time a character says something. You can punctuate your conversations with action beats, which will also help add movement to the scene. If it's a fast-paced scene, replacing some of the dialogue tags with action beats might increase the tension. Here's an example:

"Blah blah blah," John said as he holstered his gun. "Let's go."

"Blah blah blah." John holstered his gun. "Let's go."

It's a small change, but it makes a difference, doesn't it? Why not replace a few dialogue tags in your current WIP with action beats and see how it goes?

Think of it as a balancing act

Holding an entire conversation between characters and using only tags will get choppy and repetitive. But if you only use action beats, your scene might start to drag. You've got to strike a balance between tags and action, and I think how you do that is going to depend on the kind of story you're trying to tell.

Finally, keep an eye on your adverbs

I'm not here to hate on adverbs, but they can make your dialogue tags redundant if you're not careful. I sometimes see writers use things like "she shouted loudly," or "he whispered softly," and it's getting to be a bit of a pet peeve. Shouting is naturally loud, just as whispering is soft, so you don't need those modifiers.

Look for examples if you need them

If you're struggling with this concept, get out some of your favorite books and just read a page or two. Look at how the authors denote their dialogue and think about how you might incorporate those techniques into your own writing.

Dialogue tags aren't worth sweating, to me, in a rough draft. I think it's easy to fix in a revision. Of course, no two people write the same way, so that might be different for you. Research, practice, and see what you come up with. Pontificate.

19+ Comments

Derevna

It depends. Sometimes you have histrionic characters that hog the stage and chronically overact. Then you want to avoid the common tag said. For more normal characters, said works perfectly fine. And, it does not disrupt the flow of the dialogue.
A critiquer once counted how many times I used the common word was. It was the word I meant to use. It fits the actions of the character I was writing about.

Jun-02 at 04:49

Rainbow1

Consider this question and how would you write it effectively

“What do you do now?” she asked.

“What do you do now?” she asked with a raised eyebrow. (to show character action and letting the reader into the scene). Is this telling though and actually pulling the reader out of the scene? Is the descriptive tag unnecessary?

Consider this to lose the dialogue tag, eliminate telling and drawing the reader into the scene

“What do you do now?” She arched one eyebrow.

Also, how many times can one get away with employing this technique without it becoming distracting?

Any thoughts?

Jun-02 at 08:30

Marisaw

If I felt the raised eyebrow was important to show her reaction, I would write it as per your last example. If you have an action (beat), then the speech tag is entirely superfluous.

Both the speech tag + action and the action on its own would be equally distracting/not distracting.

Jun-02 at 09:13

Marisaw

Why?

Jun-02 at 09:14

Onalimb

Slavishly avoiding ‘said’ makes no more sense than slavishly adhering to the use of it. If a character is whispering, by all means, use ‘whispering.’ If the character is shouting, say they shouted. It’s fine. Elmore Leonard (the architect of the ‘said’ rule) will not roll over in his grave if you use something other than ‘said.’ A beat also works well. As Marisaw points out, it’s superfluous to use both a tag and a beat. ‘Said,’ however, is a solid workhorse. If you’re constantly trying to amp up from ‘said,’ your characters will look cartoonish.

Jun-02 at 09:56

Zenithknox

The traditonally published books I read have a mixture of dialogue tags, action beats, a combination, or nothing at all. I’ve read some drafts and occasionally sampled traditionally published that heavily lean in one direction, and it gives off a certain feeling in the story. I don’t enjoy stories with no tags or beats for long periods of conversation, even if it’s just between two people. I inevitably lose track of who’s talking or I have to read it slower to keep track.

Jun-02 at 11:30

Chalkie

Sometimes you can use the actual speech as a tag, for instance, a junior officer always addressing the other as “sir”. Not sure what the correct nomenclature is there.
Agree about the long conversation aspect, I’ve come across it in some works up for crit and it’s fine until you lose track or introduce an ambiguity. I hate having to leaf back to find out what’s going on.
Sometimes, I’ve tried not ascribing a tag or beat to a phrase deliberately, particularly at the end of a conversation, to leave the reader to ponder which character said it. Critters have usually found this annoying, but I still think it has a place. I’ve just not found it yet…

Jun-02 at 13:42

Denisosu

Nice blog and fully agree!

One thing I sometimes find frustrating when reading is when there is a long dialogue ongoing, I can lose track of who is talking. I’m sure it’s totally clear to the author, but sometimes not to the reader. they start, maybe arguing, and you know which one is saying “yes it is” and which is saying “no it isn’t” - but then they continue on to talk about their preferences in pizza, and you sometimes literally have to count the lines of dialogue to see which is the one who likes pepperoni and which likes margarita.

So, even if it may feel a bit clumsy, it is important to make sure it’s obvious who is talking. It doesn’t have to be “Mary said …” it could also be a small clue like “she paused for a second” which shows that it was the woman (if it was a woman and a man) who talks next. It can also be one of them using the other person’s name. “Listen, Mary, we’ve had this argument 1000 times!” …

Jun-03 at 12:34

Luvrofinfo

Nicely written blog entry! Good points! Thank you.

Jun-03 at 14:49

Whitechief

When you say ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ many times over, it gets on your nerves even though many big shots favour using these tags. It would make a lot of sense if you show how a character is saying what she wants to say. In other words, it is a lot better to put some actions/expressions on your characters before their speech to show what is happening on the screen than telling. That is what we call an ‘active voice’ where we are showing things instead of telling. There used to be a lot of telling in the works of old masters and it always sounded good to my years. But now people want to be shown how things happen instead of telling.
Having said that, one should avoid overuse of show or tell to have a judicious balance in a narrative.

Jun-03 at 15:50

Paramedicd

Thanks to member I highly respect, and who turned me on to McNair’s of Editor-Proof Your Writing, I am now a tag-copper. He has twenty-one steps to fog-free writing.
Step 12: Get rid of all dialogue tags except “said”.
Step 13: Now, get rid of “said”!

Tags should not TELL emotions. Rewrite to show the emotions. Rewrite to include action which shows who is talking.

Of course, an occasional “said” is perfectly acceptable, if after reviewing its use you decide it is perfect.

My thanks to that member for all the hard work I now have to do to clear the fog from my writing. He knows who he is.

Jun-05 at 13:25

Whitechief

‘Said’ can be used during a routine conversation not involving any great emotions, but certainly not when there is ample scope to show how he or she is saying something by showing gestures/expressions or actions.
However, too much of everything is bad. There’s no need to show things every time. Unless of course, it adds to the story.

Jun-05 at 15:25

Runofpen

*Ponder first, then pontificate.

Some characters are established with an accent or some other tell. The prose still needs tagging, but you can use one of at least four techniques (“said”, et al.; action beat; definitive diction; character contrasts) to differentiate speakers.

For the last category, imagine a military interrogator interacting with a terrorist. Perhaps the interrogator maintains a constant tenor throughout while the terrorist cycles through stubborn silence, dissemblement, deflection, open defiance, reluctant admission, et cetera. The tags edit themselves.

Thumb rules of tagging, based on crits ('cause I always get gigged for sparse tags):

  1. Tag every fourth change of speaker, minimum.
  2. Place action tags in the same sentence, or the immediately adjacent sentence.
  3. Save adverbs to mark a sudden change. Better, do a short description. Now, he is subdued, and I must urge him, “Speak up, a bit.”
  4. A stutter is uncommon. So is a lisp. But they make for tedious reading.
  5. Tricky, but they’ll get it, sure. No, they won’t.

Jun-05 at 20:54

Ovid

This is the sort of advice I want to put in front of new writers. It doesn’t mean they need to slavishly follow it, but they had damned well better know and have a good answer as to why they’re ignoring said advice.

It’s like all the wannabe screenwriters who hate the three act structure—and invariably point to Tarantino. Whenever you read their scripts, you discover they’re not Tarantino.

Jun-07 at 11:23

Karlabran

Great post.

And as to the histrionics, that’s something you want to “show.” Dialog tags are part of the art of writing. Histrionics is part of your character development. One is craft, the other is story. An “over the top” character is more likely to have the action beats if they’re going to act up rather than have a crazy dialog tag.

Jun-08 at 18:04

Jongoff

This is a common argument that rears its head every now and then, but here’s the fact. Said is invisible. People don’t notice it any more than they do period, comma’s or quotation marks. That’s the beauty of “said.” It ubiquitous nature has rendered it a transparent dialogue tag. In the example in the blog, “blah blah blah,” John holstered his gun. vs “blah, blah, blah,” John said as he holstered his gun. Let’s look at these two versions. In the first, it’s implied that John holster’s his gun after he finished speaking, while in the second sentence, John is holstering his gun while he’s speaking. These two sentences paint different scenes for the reader.

I don’t see any reason to move away from “said,” it works, and it’s not intrusive. It doesn’t evoke confusion, or cause the reader to pause because of the unusual use of other tags. It help keep sequence of event in clear order, and easily identify who is speaking. Should every sentence or piece of dialogue utilize it? No, but as the author suggests, use it only as necessary.

I am fond of Jack Kerouac’s comment on writing, summed up thus: “One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple.” Said is simple.

Jun-09 at 22:50

Honk59

How about:

She raised an eyebrow and asked, “What do you do now?”

Jun-10 at 17:26

Whitechief

What you say is right, no doubt about that. However, there has to be a judicious balance between the two. One must show things wherever it is important or relevant to the advancement of a story. Having said that overuse of both is to be avoided. A story will fall flat if there is no show.

Jun-11 at 02:23

Eva333

“What do you do now?” She arched one eyebrow.

Too late for the arched eyebrow. Action should precede direct speech:

She arched one eyebrow. “What do you do now?”

Jun-26 at 20:26
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