The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue Tags

 

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by Ryan Lanz

Writers use dialogue tags constantly. In fact, we use them so often that readers all but gloss over them. They should be invisible. However, there are ways to misuse them and make them stand out.

In an effort to avoid that, let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags. Toward the end of “Tag travesties” is something I sorely wish someone had told me before I started writing.

 

Why do we use dialogue tags?
The simple answer is that we use them to indicate who’s speaking. In visual media, such as movies or television, the viewer can easily tell who’s talking by lip movement and camera angles. When reading a book, obviously that’s not an option.

 

Tag travesties
There are certainly ways to misuse dialogue tags. When I was a new writer, I felt compelled to overwrite. I ‘m sure every new writer goes through a version of this. I observed how successful writers used simple tags like “said/asked” and thought to myself, that’s boring. I’m going to be an awesome writer by making them more interesting. You don’t have to admit it aloud, writers, but we all know that most of us have. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • “We can’t cross this river,” Alanna exclaimed repugnantly.
  • John crossed the room and shouted disgustedly, “I’ll never take you with me.”
  • “This has been the worst day ever,” Susie cried angrily.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, let’s up the dosage with a paragraph:

Hank crossed the room and sat down. “We should have never waited this long for a table,” he seethed, leaning over to glare at her.
“If you wanted a better spot, you should have called ahead for a reservation,” Trudy returned pointedly.
“Well, perhaps if you didn’t take so long to get ready, I could have,” he countered dryly.

Can you imagine reading an entire book like that? *shiver*

So why do new writers feel the urge to be that . . . creative with their dialogue tags? Back in the beginning, I thought the typical tags of “said/asked” were too boring and dull. It didn’t take me long to realize that dull (in this context) is the point.

Imagine your words as a window pane of glass, and the story is behind it. Your words are merely the lens that your story is seen through. The thicker the words, the cloudier the glass gets. If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story. The goal is to draw as little attention to your actual words as possible; therefore, you keep the glass as clear as possible, so that the reader focuses on the story. Using tags like “said/asked” are so clear, they’re virtually invisible.

Now, does that mean that you can’t use anything else? Of course not. Let’s look further.

 

Alternate dialogue tags
Some authors say to never use anything other than “said/asked,” while others say to heck with the rules and use whatever you want. Some genres (such as romance) are more forgiving about using alternate dialogue tags. I take a more pragmatic approach to it. I sometimes use lines like:

“I’m glad we got out of there,” she breathed.

The very important question is how often. I compare adverbs and alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice. Some is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. Imagine a cake mix with a liter of vanilla flavoring, rather than the normal tablespoon. The more often you use anything other than “said/asked,” the stronger the flavor. If it’s too powerful, it’ll tug the reader away from the story and spotlights those words. In a full length book of around 85,000 words, I personally use alternate dialogue tags only around a few dozen times total.

By saving them, the pleasant side effect is that when I do use them, they pack more of an emotional punch.

 


Related: How to Write Natural Dialogue


 

Action beats
I have a love affair with action beats. Used effectively, they can be another great way to announce who’s talking, yet at the same time add some movement or blocking to a scene. For example:

Looking down, Katie ran a finger around the edge of the mug. “We need to talk.”

That added some nice flavor to the scene, and you know who spoke. The only caveat is to be careful of not using too many action beats, as it does slow down the pacing a tiny bit. If you’re writing a bantering sequence, for example, you wouldn’t want to use a lot of action beats so as to keep the pacing quick.

 

Dos and don’ts
Sometimes, action beats and dialogue tags have misused punctuation. I’ll give some examples.

  • “Please don’t touch that.” She said, blocking the display. (Incorrect)
  • “Let’s head to the beach,” he said as he grabbed a towel. (Correct)
  • Sam motioned for everyone to come closer, “Take a look at this.” (Incorrect)
  • Debbie handed over the magnifying glass. “Do you see the mossy film on the top?” (Correct)

 

Conclusion
Like many things in a story/novel, it’s all about balance. Try alternating actions beats, dialogue tags, and even no tags at all when it’s clear who’s speaking. By changing it up, it’ll make it so that no one method is obvious.

 

 

 

Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr

Image courtesy of Onnola via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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123 thoughts on “The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue Tags”

  1. Reblogged this on Lora C Werg and commented:
    As writer’s we’ve all come across a point when we’ve written a dialog and sit back thinking “that doesn’t sound right” and it’s redone over and over again. This blog gives wonderful examples how to write a convincing dialog that flows and shows action instead of just telling about it. A great exercise would be to think back about a recent conversation you’ve had with someone that involved an action. Re-write that conversation conveying the action with dialog and see if it captures the essence of what really happened.

    Like

  2. Another little thing I have done is to follow up a simple statement with a descriptive that puts the reader inside the thought process of the character and their emotion rather than just using an adjective or two. Example: “I just can’t do this any more!” Nick turned away, weary of the continual blame game that had become their only means of communication.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. As usual, very valuable tips! I do have one point of disagreement though. You stated that “If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story.” There’s an audience out there that enjoys purple prose. Different types of writing appeal to different audiences, because individual tastes vary. Otherwise, excellent advice!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. That’s a good point. I suppose I could have added a “by and large” or “for most audiences” type of thing. I do maintain that for most mainstream fiction readers, the clearer the glass, the better.
      Thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Everything here is valuable as we know. Thanks for the learning experience I will find here. Although a very slow learner. Of the many places to learn I will follow.

    Like

  5. Excellent article! I learned a lot and I’m definetely going to apply it in my writing. I must say I’ve always been confused on how to use tags. If it’s not much trouble for you to help me, how do you handle punctuation when you say for example:
    Mary stopped her chores and asked. “How are you doing?”
    When do you break a sentence like the one above to put the dialogue portion into a new line?
    I will deeply appreaciate any advice you can give me. 🙂
    Thanks!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Good question, Carla.
      To answer your first question, the correct punctuation would be:

      Mary stopped her chores and asked, “How are you doing?”

      To answer your second question, you would separate the lines if someone else was speaking. For example:

      Mary stopped her chores and frowned.
      “What are you frowning at?” Steve asked.

      As a third option, you could use Mary’s actions as an action beat without the dialogue tag. For example:

      Mary stopped her chores and frowned. “How are you doing?”

      In that case, you don’t need the dialogue tag, as it’s clear who’s speaking.

      I hope that helps!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Great article, you cover a lot of useful tips for writing better dialogue. Like you, I wish I’d seen something like this before I released my first piece, because my characters breathed, exclaimed, joked and chortled their way through most of it 🙂 For book 2, I came back to ‘said’ because he wasn’t quite so dull after all.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Thanks so much for stopping by lorinotes. And I really enjoyed this post of yours–especially the image of the pane of glass, and words potentially obscuring your reader’s view. Good food for thought!

    Like

  8. Ryan, I really like what you have to say here. The use of dialogue tags are giving me fits in my current project, much of which is dialogue driven. When to tag and how… yeah it can be a nightmare. Thanks for the help.

    Like

  9. I’m sitting here and I’m CRINGING! I couldn’t be any guiltier in doing most of the DON’Ts here in this article. Thank you for liking my post, too. If it wasn’t for that, I wouldn’t have seen suggested posts from your blog in my email. I’m actually returning to my creative writing…. it’s been quite a while. This blog is a lifesaver!

    Like

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