What I’ve Learned About Dialogue Tags

I consider myself a new writer. Although I can say I’ve been writing all my life, all my previous writing had been for school assignments. I hadn’t really given this whole “I’m going to write for myself” thing a go until a couple of years ago. I wrote my first actual, honest to god novel back in 2011–and it’s still utter crap. Since then, I’ve written five stories–finished only two of them, and one of those is a massively long fanfic.

As such, sometimes I feel like I’m not… I don’t know… qualified to give out writing advice. After all, I still feel like I have no idea what I’m doing. But I do think that I’ve figured at least a few things out–not completely, but I’ve got enough of a grasp on how these little things work I feel pretty confident in it.

One of those things are dialogue tags.

Like I said, I’ve written five novels so far, and I’ve edited quite a few more. And one thing that keeps coming up over and over again (yes, in my own writing as well–I’ll talk more about that in a second) is incorrect use of dialogue tags. And it’s such a small thing, really, in the grand scheme of plot and character development and theme and all those fancy literary words you prayed to forget but somehow have seeped into your brain like a insidious alien parasite. They’re not going to make or break your story.

But used incorrectly, they can really make your readers grit their teeth in frustration. And if your readers are frustrated, they’re going to stop reading.

So! Here’s what I’ve learned about these pesky suckers:

1) There is such a thing as too many dialogue tags.

I have to admit, I tend to fall on this end of the spectrum. I, for whatever reason, feel like I must tell my reader exactly who and how a character says a line of dialogue. All over my writing, it’s “she whispered,” “he choked out,” “she spat,” etc. etc. And yes, even when I go back over it myself, I take half of them out. And my editing partner takes out another third that’s left. But that still doesn’t stop me from adding them in the first place. It’s almost a compulsion, at this point.

The problem with having too many dialogue tags is that it weighs down the story unnecessarily. It’s just fluff. They don’t really say anything other than to indicate who is speaking (and maybe how they say it).

I’m not saying that your story needs to be streamlined into an economical machine, every single word carefully measured and weighed. But you do need to consider your phrasing, and having too much of something (ie: dialogue tags ) that are essentially meaningless are going to frustrate the reader.

Plus, it looks sloppy having “he said,” “she said” a bazillion and a half times on the page. It’s repetitive, and it needs to be cut out.

2) There is such a thing as too FEW dialogue tags.

That being said, there is such a thing as too few dialogue tags. If I can’t tell who is talking, it irks me. Also, it forces me to go back and count lines of dialogue, trying to figure out who the hell is speaking.

For my own writing, I have a general rule of thumb (which is an apt name, in this case, because it’s the size of the stick my editor is allowed to beat me with when I break this rule) of only have two tag-less lines of dialogue in a row before I have to make some indication of who’s speaking. Even then, I only do it when there’s only two characters present in the scene.

For example, I can do this:

Steve ran a hand through his hair. “Is taking out the trash once in a while too much to ask?”

Not even turning away from the television, Adam shrugged. “Maybe.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I try.”

Steve slammed his hand on the counter and glared at the back of Adam’s head. “You’re an ass.”

Even though the lines “‘You’re unbelievable'” and “‘I try'” don’t have dialogue tags, the reader can still easily figure out who’s speaking. However, this is a bit messier and runs the risk that reader’s lose the flow of conversation:

Steve ran a hand through his hair. “Is taking out the trash once in a while too much to ask?”

Not even turning away from the television, Adam shrugged. “Maybe.”

“You’re unbelievable.”

“I try.”

“You’re an ass.”

“And you’re bleeding all over the counter.”

I’m not saying it’s unreadable, but going to long without any indication of who’s speaking can make the readers feel lost. And if they start to feel lost, they’ll probably stop reading, and we don’t want that.

Also, note that in these examples, only two people are speaking. If you add in a third or even fourth person in the room, it instantly becomes all that much harder to follow.

Mathias walked into the room, taking in the rather lopsided fight between Steve and Adam. “Trouble in paradise?”

“Stay out of this.”

“Yeah.”

See? Even I’m not sure who’s speaking there. Maybe, ultimately, it’s not important. But it does confuse readers, and that’s just not something you should risk.

3) Dialogue tags have the tendency to breed adverbs.

Refer back to #1. A lot of times, dialogue tags consist of overused formula of: “[Character name]/she/he said [adverb].” “He said sleepily.” “Natalya said angrily.” “She said quickly.” “Steve said unhappily.” It’s worse than repetitive, it’s repetitive with adverbs.

Adverbs aren’t all that bad. Not really. They’re like salt. A little bit can really bring out the flavor of the dish–er, story. But too much can make it an unpalatable mess.

But adverbs in dialogue tags are dead weight. All those above examples could have been rephrased with a stronger verb, thereby making the adverb useless. Like, “Natalya yelled,” sounds way better than “Natalya said angrily.” There is a veritable wealth of conversational verbs you can use: whimper, whisper, shout, yell, shriek, purr, inquire… There’s almost no reason to use an adverb in your dialogue tag.

(Don’t get me wrong, I still try to use adverbs in my writing. Just, on my first draft only. By the time the third draft rolls around, those suckers have been cut almost entirely out, and yours should, too.)

4) Really, what you want are action tags, not dialogue tags.

Last, and probably the most important thing about dialogue tags I’ve learned, is that most of the time you don’t even want to use a conversational verb. Things stated through action have WAY more of an effect than just “he shouted.” Note that in the examples in #2, I not once used a conversational verb. Yet, you could probably tell that Steve was annoyed, then angry, while Adam was indifferent. “Steve slammed his hand on the counter and glared at the back of Adam’s head,” says way more about Steve’s mood and current feelings towards Adam than just “Steve shouted.”

Yeah, it takes a bit longer, but it builds more character. You have way more opportunities for character growth and development by using making an action statement. And, on top of that, the reader will still know who’s speaking, by virtue of the statement being next to the line of dialogue.

There’s a caveat to the action tag v. conversational verb, though. If you’ve got multiple characters doing things all in one paragraph (which is hard to read and annoying as it is, so there’s a major probably already right there), it gets hard to tell who just spoke. Or, if you have one character speaking, but another character as some kind of direct object, that too gets confusing to the reader.

Basically, the best way to ensure people are going to know who’s talking is if that character’s name is the first name they see at the start of that paragraph. Anything else just makes it more confusing.

And that, ladies and gents, is what I have thus far learned about dialogue tags! I hope this helps. 🙂

-Eris O’Reilly

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Author: Eris O'Reilly

I'm a writer, artist, knitter, crocheter, cat wrangler, zombie hunter, and law enthusiast. Also, I am a complete and utter fangirl. I like silliness.

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