Writers have been arguing over dialogue tags since… well, since forever. Everyone has their own take on how tags should be used. This post will go over what I believe to be the best ways to use tags–and, more importantly, how not to use them.
Dialogue tags are basically words like “said”, “asked”, “exclaimed”, “shouted”, “cried”, etc. Most tags are known to distract the reader from the story, so many writers don’t use them at all. The tag “said” is commonly known as “the invisible tag”, as sometimes while reading you’ll pass right over it without realizing it was there. Using only “said” and discarding other tags will have that effect on your writing.
I like the idea of just using “said” while writing dialogue. Sometimes I’ll throw in “questioned” and “demanded”, though I’ve learned to completely omit most tags now. They are indeed distracting, and there are better ways to write a conversation without using tags.
Let’s take a look at the example below (taken from my first draft rewrite of The Secret World of Dragons). I’ve used no tags whatsoever in the entire section. The dialogue is carried by the actions and emotions of the characters.
“Ugh, I can’t believe you won that round.” Emma placed her controller on the coffee table and peered over her shoulder once again, but the cat had disappeared. “I guess one out of five is an improvement for you, though.”
Her father laughed and pushed the power button on the console, shutting off the game. “I’m not sure I deserved that win. What distracted you?”
“A black cat on the windowsill. I guess it gave me its bad luck.”
Lucas pushed back the curtain and looked outside. “It’s gone now. Probably the neighbour’s cat.”
“Yeah, or a stray. I think one of them had a litter.”
“Well, hopefully it doesn’t show up next time. You can’t play the ‘cat card’ again.”
Emma tried to hold back her grin—and the urge to toss a cushion at him. “There was no excuse card. I really did see a cat.”
The little snippet above would have sounded quite different if I’d used tags at every chance. Sometimes tags can help a conversation, though other times they slow down the dialogue and draw the reader out from the story. Tags are also unnecessary when two characters are speaking to one another. When more than two characters are speaking, tags can help identify who is who.
Choosing whether or not you want to use tags is up to you, but I recommend using them sparingly and to carefully consider which tags to use. After you’ve decided what to do, you must also remember not to use the same tags repeatedly. Upon completing your story, you should do a search of the tags you used and check their total. You don’t want “muttered” showing up fifty times throughout your book. Characters aren’t always muttering, just as they aren’t always smirking, yelling, or grinning.
If you aren’t sure which tags you should be using, just fall back with the word “said”. Like I mentioned above, sometimes readers don’t even notice it’s there. I often pass it by without actually seeing it. And swapping tags for action or emotion just makes your writing stronger.