Dialogue tags

Let’s talk about dialogue tags

Many writing rules, including those about dialogue tags, descend into to gospel, and I don’t think that helps anyone.

So I’d like to share what I’ve learned about dialogue tags.

What are dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag is a snippet of text that denotes who is speaking.

He said, she asked, but also things like He looked at her, which is what we call an action tag, where the description of the action resides in the same paragraph as the dialogue and functions as an anchor for who is speaking.

What words to use?

Some people advocate that you should only use said.

But if you do that, try reading the book out loud. If every line of dialogue is accompanied by so-and-so said, this becomes annoying.

Since we should never annoy the reader, because it’s one of Patty’s Three Cardinal Rules Of Good Writing (don’t confuse the reader, don’t annoy the reader, don’t bore the reader), you should avoid this.

Instead, you could use asked, shouted, whispered, pontificated or—heaven forbid—ejaculated. I mean it, I have seen that and I don’t advocate that you use that word, ever, in a dialogue tag.

Do you need tags at all?

Some creative writing teachers say that you do not need dialogue tags at all. You should be able to tell who speaks by the tone, subject and language used in the dialogue.

In theory, this is so.

This is fine for a conversation where the reader knows the characters, but it won’t work when you have more than two speakers, or where the characters are ring-ins that exist purely to disseminate information. Not every character is deep and meaningful.

In some story types, like fast-paced action, you may not want to invest a lot of word-space into making all the characters sound different, when, in fact, a lot of them are similar. Fast-paced action is about the action, after all.

Sometimes you just need tags.

What about action tags?

So you could insert action tags, where a piece of dialogue is interspersed with a character doing something, like he nodded, he sighed, or he sat back in his chair, or he leaned his chin on his hand.

Except when you start using this a lot, you end up with characters nodding all the time, and it feels like everyone suffers from Tourette’s syndrome.

What is the solution to this problem?

Should you use said, should you use speaking words other than said, should use tags at all, or should you use action tags?

I wonder who said that you should have to choose between all those things.

The solution to repetitive tags and/or confusion about who is speaking is to use all of these techniques where the situation suits them.

Use said when you need to make it clear who is speaking, when there are more than two characters, or where the surrounding text confuses who says what. I am even a fan of occasionally starting the line with he said, and then followed by the dialogue.

I know, gasp.

Also use action tags when appropriate. Have a character open the door for someone else once during the conversation.

And of course, it’s also fine do not use dialogue tags in fast, tit-for-tat dialogue. But even there I would advise to use a dialogue tag or an action tag every couple of sentences, so that readers who lose their train of thought don’t need to go back and count who said what.

There you have it, those on my thoughts on dialogue tags: intersperse all the available techniques and sprinkle them throughout your work, so that the text will remain varied, and nobody will get annoyed because it’s repetitive.

Here is a bonus thought: consider how your dialogue will sound in audio. Don’t use “the narrator will do voices” as solution to confusing dialogue.

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