The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue Tags

 

6130393657_e530a960ed_z

 

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.

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

    1. Agreed. I stumbled upon a similar blog back when I was a new writer, and I was very thankful to have found it back then. I hope this will serve the same function for someone else. Thanks for reading! I hope you find other posts enjoyable.

      Like

  1. Hmmmm….I do find myself doing this, but I don’t think I OVER do it….then again, I’m not published or anything….so….thank you for the food for thought. *Frantically runs to check over his writing and see how guilty of this he is*

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Glad to see somebody advertising moderation in dialogue tags around here! While I don’t think the occasional fidget hurts a story–it can sometimes be very indicative of mood or character as well as breaking up a dialogue chunk–too much looks a bit spastic. And sticking MOSTLY with said is a good rule. Sometimes people do shout, hiss, or titter. Sometimes they even do these things with an adverb on the end. But not all the time. Please, god, not all the time.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Great post! I totally agree – and guilty, of course, mostly on the alternate tag side, as I am very found of -ed words like ‘breathed’ and ‘sighed.’ It’s really just everything in moderation, isn’t it? And avoiding adverbs if at all possible. As Stephen King said, “the road to Hell is paved with adverbs.”

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh sweet Lord! Balance, balance, balance 😉 It seems to be the story of my life. Wonderful point(s) made, and now I feel the urge to go back and look at what I’m writing with this in mind. Much appreciated, post, Ryan!

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Action beats are particularly hard to read aloud. We probably aren’t all going to wind up with audiobook versions of our novels, but in case we get lucky, well…action beats can trip up even the most professional reader. A current number one New York Times bestselling author uses them almost to the exclusion of regular old “said” and “asked” tags, and the otherwise excellent audiobook versions of his novels suffer as a result.

    Like

  6. I love that there are people like me out there who a) notice such things in writing, and b) care enough to write a blog post / comment about it. Thanks for being my “peeps”.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you, J.L. I sure can.

      “Please don’t touch that.” She said, blocking the display.
      SHOULD BE:
      “Please don’t touch that,” she said, blocking the display.

      Sam motioned for everyone to come closer, “Take a look at this.”
      SHOULD BE:
      Sam motioned for everyone to come closer. “Take a look at this.”

      I hope that helps. Let me know if you have any further questions. It’s all about that punctuation. Thanks for reading!

      Like

  7. I’m of the less-is-more school. I use tags other than “said” very very sparingly and almost never add an adverb. Seems to me you’re not confident in your dialogue if you have to put in those descriptors.
    Thanks for liking our Proust post.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Thanks for the affirmation. Your advice convinced me after the first I received to ONLY use said or asked and NEVER embellish the tag. For a writer who was under the misguided impression that one should NEVER just use said/asked, I’m happy with my own progress in simply using a descriptive verb as in your example breathed. Hats off!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you found it helpful. I think that any advice saying to never do something 100% should be taken with a grain of salt. Thanks for reading. Did you check out the Ten Quote Thursday that came out today? : )

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thank you again so much for the wealth of great information you have shared in this post. Thanks, too, for adding the comment that advice saying to never do something 100% should be taken with a grain of salt. I have been a published author for 10 years and an avid reader since I was a young child. Yes, I make mistakes in my writing, but hopefully, they are teaching me to become a better writer. While I do agree that there should be some rule of thumb, I also feel that since writing is expressive art, each writer has to find his own voice. With that, come different styles of writing and ways of saying things. As I’ve seen from many of the great books I’ve read, what works for one may or may not work for another. As long as the story is well written and the storyline is one I thoroughly enjoy, I don’t poke at the little things.

        Liked by 1 person

  9. I cringed as I read this because I’m guilty of it XD Not so much now, but I used to be. To be honest, I hate writing dialogue. I try to get away using as few dialogue tags as possible. Cormac McCarthy just doesn’t use any XD But when you’re that good you can do whatever you want, lol. I’m going to pay closer attention to this as I read. Dialogue is one of my weaknesses, and I don’t really enjoy it. The other part of this is that I’m not really a people watcher so small nuances of expression escape me. I’m trying to be more diligent about that as well. I think it’s not so much about how something is said but the actions that accompany it. Faulkner really embellishes on that aspect.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I think the thing I do the most that’s a huge “NO!” and a slap on the wrist is over think my writing… I’ll go back and read and re-read, making small changes to every little thing I do and I end up making mistakes by over thinking. Adding pointless motion, words that are too fancy, or dialogue tags that don’t need to be there… it’s part of what takes me so long to finish anything and eventually makes me uninterested in the things I’m writing to the point that I actually STOP writing. Some times I just need to kick myself in the rear and forget about being a perfectionist, lol.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Honestly, Courtney, I struggle with editing while I write at times. I’ve gotten better at it. I don’t think it’s a mortal sin to completely banish editing while your write, but as you mentioned too much can bog you down.
      Weirdly enough (and not something everyone can do), but I close my eyes when I write, of late. It helps me to not see those errors that I’m tempted to fix. Odd, but it helps. It also helps me to “see” the room that the scene is in.

      Liked by 1 person

    2. I can totally relate, and I think that as writers (at least initially), we do that. But I, too, am learning to just go with the flow when I’m writing by not re-reading and changing things (unless I feel that it’s absolutely necessary at the time.) When I do that, once I start editing, I feel that it allows me to better enhance my story and give it added flavor and life. I cringe when I read some of my older work but feel that I have learned from my mistakes and am still learning.

      Liked by 2 people

  11. I am usually so defensive about creative license and reckless language application in writing – mostly because I’m more poet than author. Generally speaking, I despise writing tips and chalk them up to the masters not wanting to let new writers thrive – giving them rules and parameters to restrict creativity and place stumbling blocks to obsess over. However, I found this piece to be the most reasonable, responsible argument I’ve ever read for the advocacy of such tips. It is simply sound advice. So, thank you for posting it. Hope you don’t mind if I share it on Twitter.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. On the contrary, share away! 🙂
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts, Jill. Your compliment means a lot to me, knowing now how you generally feel about writing tips.

      I hear what you’re saying because I’ve felt a similar fashion to writing advice pages. I remember hearing some advice that’s more on the…militant side and thought to myself how we should have some sort of ability to be flexible with certain “rules.”

      When I write a writing tips page, especially a “dos and don’ts” type, I really try to put soft edges on the don’ts. My intent is not to tell a writer what not to do per se, but merely to give them food-for-thought about what occurs if they do so. That way, they can weigh for themselves whether it’s worth it to go against the consensus current or not. I find that writers get much more value out of their methods when they make a conscious decision on their own whether to break a rule or follow it.

      Again, thank you for your thoughtful message and thanks for reading!

      Liked by 1 person

      1. A thoughtful and wise reply. I agree. Informed choice is a positive force, and essential when speaking to people of high intelligence (which I’m confident comprises most of the writing community).

        I was recently in a discussion on Twitter with author and Taqwa Magazine contributor Andrew Livingston on this topic. We joked that anyone who adheres to all the rules shouldn’t be writing outside of personal journals. We agreed that while the practice of writing can be taught, the feeling that moves writers, the passion, the talent, cannot – and that containing the outpouring that defines the experience is difficult at best, never mind trying to bridle and control it with a rigid set of limitations and criteria.

        However, the explanation you offered adds a perspective that allows for the nimbleness in creativity we so desire as artists but also provides a workable parameter in which we can improve the quality of our product and thereby broaden its reception.

        I look forward to reading more of what you have to offer. Words are plentiful. Wisdom, however, is in short supply. It is nice to find a well-spring here and there in the vast expanse of internet burbling.

        Much luck to you, and thanks again for the great post.

        Liked by 2 people

      2. Your comments made my day, Jill. I am fortunate to have such intelligent thinkers and readers as a following. There will be many more posts to come, and I look forward to seeing you there. : )

        P.S. If you have any requests on topics, feel free to mention it in any one of the comment sections.

        Liked by 1 person

  12. This post is a helpful reminder. I definitely over-wrote in my first novel, and fortunately had an editor who helped with this. The temptation is always there, and it’s great to have detailed reminders of how to avoid it. I found your blog here after you liked a post on my new blog. How did you find it? Still new to how all this tagging and such works.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. WordPress clumps articles together in its “Reader” based on tags and probably titles. It was one of them that came up in my reader of interested topics.

      Thanks for reading, Keith! I’m glad you found it helpful.

      Like

  13. Reblogged this on Aleksis Faust and commented:
    I agree with this completely. I think part of the problem is that a number of pre-College English teachers encourage children to overuse tags, b/c they don’t want them to be lazy. There are a lot of bad habits bred into us, we almost have to unlearn as much as we learn.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. the only time I use tags is when I have more than two people holding a conversation. This is to keep the confusion of who is speaking when. I do tend to avoid this problem, as you have probably noticed, by not having more than two speak in any of my stories unless absolutely necessary. multiple dialog participants, though realistic, tends to get tacky when in print. I like neat and orderly. easier to handle.

    Liked by 1 person

  15. I agree that we are taught to overuse dialogue tags in school. If you look at creative writing class posters on Pinterest, teachers everywhere are showing ‘100 words to use instead of said’ and so on. They also encourage overuse of adjectives and adverbs to create ‘colorful’ writing. What they are doing right is that they are increasing vocabulary. What they are ignoring is what good writing looks like in real life. Thanks for a great post: it was really informative.

    Liked by 2 people

  16. Ah, yes the dreaded dialogue tags-oh how they plagued me in my early drafts! I also made the mistake of using smiled or laughed as a dialogue tag but was soon told that technically it is very difficult to speak and do those at the same time 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  17. Great tips. I love action beats too, and find if I write quickly they play in my head so I can follow along. Like a movie, when I’m lucky. Thanks so much for the like, Ryan!

    Liked by 2 people

  18. Reblogged this on Christopher Peter and commented:
    Really good post, and re-blogged because I totally agree and I couldn’t put it better myself. I think every writer should read this, because it’s one of the biggest pitfalls of inexperienced writers – and I have to say a few published ones I’ve come across too. I completely agree that balance is key, but the bias should be towards the humble ‘said/says’ precisely because – as you say – the tag is there to point towards the dialogue, not itself. There are exceptions of course. The other thing that grates with me is the completely unnecessary tag – e.g. ‘I’m sorry you’re upset,’ he commiserated. That’s not necessary because it’s obvious from the text that he’s commiserating.

    Like

  19. Around 1910, the “Tom Swift” character appeared in a series of juvenile adventure and sci fi books. The listed author, Victor Appleton, was actually the pseudonym of a number of writers who cranked these stories out. Tagged dialogue was an embarrassing feature, and a popular game was inventing “swifties” – phrases that Tom might use in a given situation. Some examples:
    “I just love to fly,” said Tom, airily.
    “I lost my crutches,” said Tom lamely.
    “I’ll take the prisoner downstairs”, said Tom condescendingly.”
    Great fun to make up your own!

    Like

  20. Wow, you have a lot of comments. This is excellent. I’ve had to work on this a lot as a writer. I’m doing better at no tags at all when it is not confusing, and using said even though I used to think said was boring, but you’re right. When you use said, it practically makes the dialogue invisible. Your blog is very helpful. thanks.

    Liked by 1 person

  21. Well written. I think (sadly) this is the first blog post I’ve ever read about adult writing. I think I need to thank you for finding my site, liking a post and sending me on the beginning of a writer’s growth quest. 🙂

    (from someone who always misuses commas, parenthesis and asides)

    Like

  22. Too funny! I recently read a book to my daughter (9-12 year old fantasy genre) that overused both fancy dialogue tags and adverbs. The characters not only stretched, panted, sighed and exclaimed their words, but they did them all angrily, excitedly, maddeningly (that one’s mine!) . And of course the author managed to work in my other pet peeve, people hissing things with no sibilants, which therefore cannot be hissed. We ended up acting out the dialogue, complete with over the top melodrama, and laughing hysterically. We won’t be reading the rest of that series.

    Liked by 2 people

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.