How to use dialogue tags in your writing

Today we’re going to deconstruct a common writing “rule” about Dialogue tags.

What are Dialogue Tags and what is the rule?

Dialogue tags are those bits of writing that surround dialogue. If you’ve used them correctly, they are invisible.

The “rule” is that you’re only allowed to use three:

  • Said (90% of the time)
  • Replied / Asked (10% of the time)

That’s it. Don’t use anything else.

Think of dialogue tags as the load-bearing studs that hold up a wall. You want them to be invisible, behind the wall. If the reader notices them, you’ve exposed the “framework” of writing. The reader is painfully reminded that they’re reading. This is a bad thing. Excessive use of dialogue tags is also a textbook example of breaking “show don’t tell”.

Can you break this down using real examples?

Gang, real examples are literally the only way I learn!  Let’s illustrate this concept using a snippit from author John Scalzi who is regarded as being very good at dialogue. Here’s a sample from his book “Old Man’s War”.

“You know,” I said, “I’ve been trying to make jokes to you the entire time I’ve been here.”
“I know,” she said. “I’m sorry. My sense of humor was surgically removed as a child.”
“Oh,” I said.
“That was a joke,” she said, and stood up, extending her hand.
“Oh,” I stood up and took it.
“Congratulations, recruit,” she said. “Good luck to you out there in the stars. I actually mean that,” she added.
“Thank you,” I said, “I appreciate it.”

Pretty straightforward, right? In the above, the dialogue is doing all the work and the tags are there to orient you to who is speaking. That is all dialogue tags should do.

Nothing else.  Seriously, burn that into your head.

The purpose of dialogue tags is to orient the reader to who is speaking.

That’s all.  That is their only function.

So how do new authors go off the rails?

Two ways.

1. Using excessive synonyms for “said”

The first one is where they try to find synonyms for “said”, presumably out of some misguided viewpoint that repeating “said” over and over is problematic. So they use words like “questioned” or “ repeats” or “exclaimed”. They’re trying to capital-W Write.

Let’s rewrite the Scalzi dialogue, but replace every instance of the word “said” with a synonym.

“You know,” I exclaimed, “I’ve been trying to make jokes to you the entire time I’ve been here.”
“I know,” she responded. “I’m sorry. My sense of humor was surgically removed as a child.”
“Oh,” I commented.
“That was a joke,” she reassured, and stood up, extending her hand.
“Oh,” I stood up and took it.
“Congratulations, recruit,” she uttered. “Good luck to you out there in the stars. I actually mean that,” she added.
“Thank you,” I spoke, “I appreciate it.”

Does… does anyone reading think this it’s better? Seriously? It’s distracting. It’s forcing the reader to remember they’re reading. It’s horrible.

2. Using adverbs within the tags

The second way new authors struggle is they make dialogue tags shoulder the burden of conveying emotion. So rather than type “she said” they’ll type “she said excitedly” or “she said breathlessly”. It’s equally awful.

Let’s rewrite the Scalzi example again, this time forcing our dialogue tags to be adverb-heavy

“You know,” I said, imploringly “I’ve been trying to make jokes to you the entire time I’ve been here.”
“I know,” she said, deadpan. “I’m sorry. My sense of humor was surgically removed as a child.”
“Oh,” I said slowly.
“That was a joke,” she said laughingly, and stood up, extending her hand.
“Oh,” I stood up and took it.
“Congratulations, recruit,” she said enthusiastically. “Good luck to you out there in the stars. I actually mean that,” she added.
“Thank you,” I said, gratefully “I appreciate it.”

It’s trash, right? You can see that? If you compare the examples, you can see why it’s terrible? I don’t know how else to get this point across except showing you. It’s a textbook example of “tell not show”.

Dialogue tags should be like punctuation. If used correctly, they should be invisible. By forcing in expansive dialogue tags (she opined, he implored, she sneered, he wailed), you’re forcing yourself, as the writer, into the story. You are reminding the reader they are reading. This is the worst possible thing you can do.

So how do I convey the emotion of the scene?

You write. Here’s a generic conversation I made up with no stage direction or physical cues, using “said”

“Your dinner got cold” said Mark
“I know, I was working late” Carol said
“You’re always so busy with your career”
“I do it for the family” Carol said.

If you left it at this, it’s up to the reader to decide how this exchange is unfolding. Watch this though. I can make this a tense, hostile exchange or I can make it caring and affectionate.

I’ll show you.

Let’s do this scene again, and write it as a loving relationship. I am not going to use a single dialogue tag.

“Your dinner got cold” Mark said, coming over to rub her shoulders.
“I know, I was working late”. Carol leaned back against him.
A note of sympathy crept into his voice “You’re always so busy with your career”.
“I do it for the family” she smiled.

There. Not great prose, but you get the gist. You can change the tone of the conversation without using a single tag.

Watch. Now I’m going to make them hate each other:

Your dinner got cold” Mark slammed the plates into the sink and she jumped at the noise.
“I know, I was working late”. This conversation always put her on the defensive.
“You’re always so busy with your career”. She could hear the air quotes he put around the word career.
“I do it for the family” Her teeth clenched. Always the same fights. Always the same words

There. Now they hate each other. See how easy that was?


Can you see the difference? This is why people say not to use any dialogue tags other than “said”. You don’t need them. They are a crutch. If the only way you can get your emotion across is by writing “she sighed” or “he wailed” or “she spat” then, I’m sorry. You’re not writing to the best of your ability.

Writing is hard.

Be better than that! You can do it!

4 comments

  1. Very interesting! And it’s a wonder anyone can write anything, so many things to remember. Where is the I woke up with this wonderful idea and the whole chapter just wrote itself!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

  2. Good post. I learned early about bad tagging from ‘The Issue at Hand’ by James Blish, a book of SF criticism that has much good advice on writing. He is in accord with you on the subject.

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