dialogue / writers tips

Dialogue Tags Do’s and Don’ts

dialogue tagsToday, I’m hosting Ryan Lanz, avid blogger over at Ryan Lanz.com and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. He has some great ideas on dialogue tags I think you’ll enjoy:

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.

dialogueCan 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.

Image 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.

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.

More on dialogue:

Writer’s Tip #22: When to Use Said as a Tag

Writer’s Tip #21: Dialogue vs. Narrative

Is Your Dialogue More Sigh than Sizzle?

Dialoge Vs. Narrative: A Primer

How to Write Natural Dialogue


Jacqui Murray is the author of the popular Building a Midshipman, the story of her daughter’s journey from high school to United States Naval Academy, and the thrillers, To Hunt a Sub and  Twenty-four DaysShe is also the author/editor of over a hundred books on integrating tech into education, adjunct professor of technology in education, webmaster for four blogs, an Amazon Vine Voice book reviewer,  a columnist for TeachHUB, monthly contributor to Today’s Author and a freelance journalist on tech ed topics. You can find her books at her publisher’s website, Structured Learning.

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62 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags Do’s and Don’ts

  1. Pingback: Writers Tips #102: 17 Tips from The Careful Writer | WordDreams...

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  4. Hi Jacqui and Ryan – excellently well explained … and oh how easy it is to think we can write, yet the fact is … it is such a difficult discipline. I’m stopping now – short and sweet … cheers to you both – Hilary

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Yes, flowery tags do make the ‘window pane foggy’…this post reminds me of William Saroyan whose dialogue tags wiped off the story to the extent of laughing them off! Then there were James Joyce and Virginia Woolf who didn’t care to add any tags to their dialogues. In both cases the burden fell on the readers. 🙂 Thanks for sharing such a thoughtful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Thank you for the insights into balance. It seems our mind seeks balances not just in writing. Last week, I attended an art demonstration. The artist showed that to be good paintings they need balances of sizes, shapes, and colors.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. This is excellent advice for writers at all levels. But if I have to place blame, I go back to high school teachers who encouraged awful writing styles. I guess they wanted to see our vocabulary lists in action. Pare it down, get more punch. Jacqui, thanks for hosting Ryan Lanz whose advice is genuinely useful.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. I try to write dialogue as I see the scene in my head. I use ‘said’ and ‘ask’ when I feel the distinction of who is talking is needed but not otherwise. I do use action beats but when I feel the dialogue has a lot of importance, the action beats are left behind.

    Yes, Jacqui, I did start out with flowery tags until I read that most people skip right over them wanting to get on with the story.

    Liked by 2 people

  9. Excellent tips. I made the same rooky mistake in the beginning of wanting to vary my dialog tags. Fortunately, that was corrected early. Another tip is to vary the placement in the sentence. I just read a story where every sentence ended with he said or she said. It was almost unreadable. Great post. 😀

    Liked by 2 people

  10. Love the post. I tend to be verbose and would probably write and write and write. I made a deliberate attempt with my poetic memoir to keep the poems tight and say just enough to spark imaginations. Happy writing to you!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Great tips. There is a story I read regularly (not on blogs, it’s a fanfic) that really would be an excellent story if it wasn’t for the criminal overuse of adverbs in dialogue tags. I tend to agree with Mr. King on this one. A very occasional adverb might be okay in the narrative, but never, never, never in dialogue. It’s something I’m very aware of nipping in the bud in my own writing, and it’s good to see others dedicating some word space to talking about this. I get the feeling a lot of inexperienced writers don’t have faith in their story to stand on its own, so they feel the need to over-use dialogue tags to clarify the action and add colour, when in fact, it does the opposite.

    Liked by 2 people

  12. I think my trouble with fiction was, I rushed a lot and omitted words, while if I couldn’t find the correct word or way to describe an emotion – I wrote w-a-y too much!!

    Liked by 1 person

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