Writing about talking: dialogue tags


Two things happened recently that made me think more than the usual amount about dialogue tags. (You know the usual amount? You do know, right? Please tell me it’s not just me!) One was that I saw a picture on Pinterest that looked something like this:

Alternatives to said

Danger! “Creative” dialogue tags! Use with caution!

The other was that I got some copy edits back on my impending release, and my editor pointed out that in one particular scene I went a little nutty bananas with the dialogue tags.

For those who aren’t up on the cool (hahahaha) writer jargon, dialogue tags are the things you put before or after dialogue to attribute the speaker, so the reader knows who’s doing the talking. The most obvious one is “said”, followed by its nosy cousin, “asked”.

“I knew you were going to say that,” Sally said.

“Why do you say that?” Sue asked.

The goal with dialogue tags is to be as unobtrusive as possible, so that your reader doesn’t get distracted by wondering what crazy word you’re going to use next. (#protip: “Ejaculated” hasn’t been ok as a dialogue tag for decades now!) Also, if you’re following the holy mantra of show, don’t tell, then your dialogue tags shouldn’t be doing much telling beyond telling who’s speaking. Which brings me back to the super-helpful-only-not-really picture up the top. It might be a useful tool for a teacher helping kids learn about verbs, but it’s not something we should go overboard with.

Compare:

“Come back here,” Dave shouted angrily.

“Come back here.” Dave’s voice shook with rage.

In the first instance, the dialogue tag is a replacement for said. Sure, it tells the reader how Dave delivered his line, but it doesn’t show them. In the second example, we’re showing the reader.

“But wait a minute,” you say, pointing an accusing finger. “That second example doesn’t even have an dialogue tag!”

That’s right, imaginary-reader-I’m-having-this-conversation-with! Instead of using a dialogue tag, I used action. Action is just as good at describing who is speaking as a dialogue tag is, and as a dialogue tag it’s even more invisible than the humble “said” is — because, well, it’s not actually there at all.

As a dialogue tag, that is. It’s there as action. Um… *hurries along*

Here are some other good pieces of advice when it comes to dialogue tags. I’m not perfect, especially on the first draft, but as I’m editing these are things I try to stick to as closely as possible.

If you’re going to use descriptive tags, stick with ones that do things your dialogue can’t.

Tags that describe the volume of speech are a good example: whispering, shouting, that sort of thing. But moderation is key. My copy editor pointed out I had people murmuring to one another FIFTY-FIVE times. Oops. #awkward

Don’t use tags in ways that are physically impossible.

One thing I’ve been guilty of is of having people sigh or laugh lines of dialogue. Try laughing as you speak — it doesn’t work. Likewise, sighing or grunting more than a word or two is also difficult.

So:

“I wish you hadn’t said that,” she sighed.

becomes:

“I wish you hadn’t said that.” She sighed.

The first is an improbable dialogue tag; the second is an action. If you’re not sure, try actually saying the line the same way your character is. (Not if you’re on public transport or in a coffee shop though. Unless you want people to look at you strangely.)

Avoid using tags to describe things that are already clear.

Here are some examples I am guilty of:

Wow, that’s a profound insight into dialogue tags, she thought.

“I d-don’t want t-to,” he stammered.

We can tell she thought it by the use of italics, and can see that he stammered. (Yes, that first one has italics — I know it’s a little hard to tell with the cursive font. Trust me!)

Don’t attribute every line of dialogue.

When two characters are going back and forth — particularly when they are the only ones in the scene — you can assume the reader will be able to follow without tags, for at least a little while. Just make sure that, if it is a back and forth with no dialogue tags at all, you don’t get confused and lose track of where you’re up to so the speaker’s turn switches. (I’m looking at you, John Green! I re-read that scene in An Abundance of Katherines several times before realising it wasn’t just me!)

Mix it up!

If you’ve got a conversation going back and forth, you can use a mix of simple tags like “said”, more descriptive tags like “whispered”, action, and no tags at all.

Above all, make sure you know the rules before you break them. One technique I noticed Aussie bestseller John Marsden use is not bothering even trying to attribute the dialogue. He used this particular technique when he had a bunch of teenage characters chatting excitedly and it didn’t really matter who was saying what. Stripping all the dialogue tags and action out sped the dialogue up to a sprint, which conveyed the conversation’s sheer chaos.

This is definitely a case where you need to understand the rules before you disregard them, though — the same technique wouldn’t have worked in any of the other dialogue scenes in his book, so he didn’t use it there.

Happy talking writing writing about talking!

Cassandra Page is an urban fantasy writer whose third book comes out this month, and didn’t that sneak up fast?!

Cassandra Page

3 Comments

  1. Isn’t it actually possible to laugh when speaking? I mean, I agree entirely about the fiction use, but I think I’ve probably laughed my own dialogue a few times. 😛 Good post.

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    Reply

    1. I think laughing is a bit like sighing – you might be able to manage a syllable or two, but anything beyond that would be very challenging. (Your mileage may vary – I don’t think I’d have the lung capacity!)

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