Dialogue Tags – Again #wwwblogs #writingtips #amwriting

writing-dialogue

This is a subject I’ve written about several times in the past, but it is an issue I keep coming back to, time and time again.

I’m a huge fan of self-publishing and of independent authors. I’ve read some absolutely amazing books by indie authors and have worked with some amazing authors that have self-published. There are so many great indie authors out there and many that are as good as, if not better than, traditionally published authors.

However, one thing that sets apart the majority of (but by no means all) traditionally published authors from some self-published authors and authors published by small presses is the proliferation of complicated dialogue tags in the work of the latter two. Now, I’m not saying it’s all indie authors that do this, but there is a lot of it about, and it’s usually a sign of an author who hasn’t had their work professionally edited or critiqued.

Dialogue tags are those words used instead of ‘said’ and ‘asked’; words like ‘exclaimed’ and ‘sighed’ and ‘insisted’ and, horror of horrors, ‘interjected’. Many authors that I advise not to use these complicated tags will argue that using them is the sign of a good writer, that they’re showing off their writing skills.

But they’re not.

Because the point of a dialogue tag is to signify who has spoken. That’s it. Nothing else. It shouldn’t indicate how something was said. It shouldn’t indicate the tone or the volume of the words. It should simply show only who is speaking.

Why? Well, lots of reasons. (If you are a client and you have read all this before then I do apologise.) Readers are so used to seeing ‘said’ and ‘asked’ that they skim over those words, noting quickly who is ‘saying’ or ‘asking’ and getting on with the important things. The flow of the writing isn’t interrupted, the reader reads on smoothly and happily. If a dialogue tag suddenly crops up, like ‘chuckled’ or ‘screamed’, the reader is forced to pause, to think about the tag. The flow is interrupted, and for no purpose. The reader is also suddenly reminded that they’re reading a book. They’re not actually in an eighteenth century English prison, or on a spaceship circling Mars, or on a beach in Sydney. They’re suddenly pulled out of that world and back into reality. “Look at me,” the dialogue tag says, “the author looked me up in a thesaurus because they wanted to sound interesting. Also, they didn’t have enough confidence in their own writing to know that the character’s words, actions, situation and emotions are sufficient to show that the character was shouting, or that you, the reader, were clever enough to work that out yourself.”

Think about it. If a character is speaking, and their words are cut across by another character, that shows that the second character has interrupted; you don’t need to tell your reader that they have done so. If your character is telling another character a story about their past, it is obvious that they are reminiscing, or remembering. You don’t need a dialogue tag to hammer the point home.

It’s also worth bearing in mind that most dialogue tags don’t really make sense. Take ‘chuckled’ for example. No one really chuckles a word. They might say a word and then chuckle, but you can’t do the two things at once.  Dialogue cannot be laughed, smiled, giggled, nodded or screamed. Dialogue tags only serve to draw people out of the story, to distract.

Remember, writing should appear effortless (although it is far from it) and a dialogue tag that stands out reveals the author, reveals that the world has been crafted. To paraphrase Stephen King – you have told your story well enough to believe that when you use ‘said’ or ‘asked’ your reader will know how it was said or asked.

So shut that thesaurus please, and have a little more faith in yourself, in your words and in your reader.

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22 comments

  1. Totally agree re the chuckled, etc. But I’d be interested to have your reactions / comments on a technique I use quite a bit – interspersing a conversation with actions that develop the characters and /or fill in the situation as well as serving the function of dialogue tags.

    It has been commented on favourably by various judges in different competitions and several industry professionals (eg Harper Collins editor) as something that can be very effective – hence my continuing to use it. If I may interrupt a conversation in the 1st chapter of one of my books to give an example -the lady in question has just been handed a letter which asks her to facilitate an ambush. (16thc)

    Frowning, she slid her forefinger under the wax seal, her grip on the parchment tightening as she read. She looked up at Munro. “To betray a guest … a kinsman … and to such an end … Glencairn presumes much.”
    Slate eyes met blue. Munro made his voice flat. “The Montgomeries are kin in marriage only. You are a Cunninghame.”
    She bent to pick up the small shift, fallen to the floor as she rose to greet him, her fingers teasing at the unfinished smocking. “And for that I must risk my peace and that of my children?”
    Blocking the anguish in her voice and hating his own tone, he said, “We are none of us at peace. Our cousin Waterstone’s lady lies cold in bed at night and his bairns they say still cry out in their sleep.”

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Margaret. Using actions interspersed with dialogue is an excellent way to ‘show’ who is speaking. It’s one lots of writers use successfully and usually works really well, and is certainly far better than lots of dialogue tags.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. This subject can be summarised by saying that, nearly all of the time, the dialogue itself should tell the reader how the character said the words, though of course you explain WHY, too! I can understand how, in your line of work, you feel moved to write ‘how many more times do I have to say this?’ type blog posts!!!! A bit like me and my debut novelist posts, after I’ve been reviewing….

    (She vouchsafed, smilingly).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Vouchsafed? Ugh… Thanks for that! 🙂 And thank you for your very concise summary – exactly, the dialogue itself should be enough, and if you need a ‘fancy’ dialogue tag then you need to look again at the dialogue you’ve written.

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  3. This is a tough lesson to take, not because I’m thinking of myself as a great writer or anything, rather the opposite. For me, it stems from part not being confident in my writing and language skills as well as me being overly visual in my creativity and thought process. I see things so clearly, rather then hearing and thus, have a tendency to try and describe what I see more than relying in the, possible, reader’s own experience leading to the same feeling I strive to ‘impose’.

    Good and solid advice, thankful for this! Now, to practice and look in the cereal box for some confidence…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for taking the time to comment. It is one of those things that lots of writers do struggle with – but it’s important to trust your reader, and to trust that you have written what you’ve written well enough for the reader to ‘see’. I’m sure you’re better at doing that than you think! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. The comments used adverbs which, I agree,can be unnecessary. I remain unconvinced that ‘said’ and ‘asked’ ( surely even that isn’t required if there is a question mark?) are the only dialogue tags we should use.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I would use ‘asked’ even if there is a question mark, but only if it needed to be clear who was asking the question. If there is no need for a tag at all, then I wouldn’t use one. Using adverbs along with tags is almost always unnecessary; the context and the words should show how something is said – and that’s also why dialogue tags shouldn’t be needed.

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      1. “Try this,” he snarled as he pushed her fingers into the toaster.
        “Don’t , don’t,” she screamed. ” I’ll tell you everything.”
        “Push it down,” he commanded as he struggled to hold her.
        Paul hesitated.
        ” Don’t do it,” he pleaded. ” I’ll take you there”
        OR
        “Don’t do it,” he ordered. “I’ll take you there.”

        Liked by 1 person

      2. Hi Julie,
        My point is that you can’t scream and speak at the same time. She wouldn’t scream those words. She might say them, and then scream afterwards, but she wouldn’t scream them. When I read the words ‘Don’t, don’t’ I already have the way she is saying them in my head, before I get to the tag. ‘Push it down’ is obviously a command, because he’s forcing her to do something – you don’t need the tag to tell your reader that. As for ‘pleaded’ and ‘ordered’ – yes, you could use either of them in the scene and each would change the way the reader ‘hears’ the words (although when he says ‘I’ll take you there’ that immediately puts him in the position of someone being forced – so he isn’t then in control and so wouldn’t be in any place to give orders). But in context, the reader would have the whole scene in their head. They would know who Paul is and if he is scared for the woman in the scene, and desperate to help her, or whether he is someone in control of the situation and who potentially has power, in which case your reader will know how those words are being said. It’s all about the context.
        This should be a dramatic, fast-moving, tense and frightening scene. It needs pace. The dialogue tags just slow things down and get in the way.
        Thanks for taking the time to post the example – sometimes it really helps.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve gagged on my own words. Haven’t you? I’ve spit them with venom when confronted by an ideologue during a political debate. I’ve spoken (or attempted to speak) while laughing. All these are valid in describing an occurrence in a story, aren’t they? However, I use them sparingly. In fact I only used dialog tags for clarity and then wonder why it isn’t clear who is speaking based on what they’re saying. Aren’t my characters well enough established that readers will understand who is saying what? Dialog tags interrupt the flow of dialog and, again, I use them as sparingly as possible. (I also use adverbs – as you may have noticed) and that seems to be passe these days. But, that’s another matter…

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting, Jack. I have to disagree though and say that I’ve never laughed and spoken at the same time! As you say, I’ve attempted to speak, but I’ve never actually ‘laughed’ a word! I do think it’s all a matter of trusting your reader, and trusting your own skill as a writer too. 🙂

      Like

    1. Julie, how about:

      “Try this!” He pushed her fingers into the toaster.

      She screamed. “Don’t, don’t! I’ll tell you everything!”

      “Push it down!” Try though he might, he struggled to hold her.

      I think that works better than all those dialogue tags.

      Liked by 2 people

    2. Vouchsafe is an awesome word, isn’t it???!!! Another writer (Phil Conquest) and I wrote a dreadful crime novelette by a ‘Naff Writer’, using all the worst of the worst of amateur writing. Worryingly, it got a 5 star review. It’s called Burning Bacon, should you want to look it up on Amazon.

      Liked by 2 people

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