Dialogue Tags in Writing

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.

Happy writing,

Sandra

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7 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags in Writing

  1. In a writing style experiment for a science fiction, I challenged myself to get rid of as many tags as possible by having the characters all speak in specific ways. It worked out really well, and though it was hard (the experiment required me to write as sparsely as possible) the result was really pleasing. Great post!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I definitely find myself on the opposite side there. It’s a bit like the adverb debate- when your argument boils down to “The reader doesn’t even know it’s there,” that strikes me as something that can be just as bad in its own way. Likewise, arguing that it brings the reader out of the story can backfire too, because if the characters are always described as speaking the same way, it does make them sound very similar. The argument you make, that it’s better to use action or emotion than tags, can also have the opposite effect. Describing something slows the pacing down, and a concise action verb for a tag can really tighten up a dialogue and keep it moving.

    Not to say that you don’t have a lot of good points in what you’re saying, but I often feel the need to push back just a little bit. Overbalancing too far one way can have as negative an impact on a story as the other way, but I rarely hear that side of things.

    I’d also challenge the idea of tags being unnecessary when two people are talking. Especially if the conversation takes an emotional turn, trying to get it across without anything at all would cause reader whiplash, while describing every step of the process would draw things out, perhaps to a far greater extent than would be advisable.

    So yeah, I think that tags are generally a far more positive thing than most writers give them credit for, just like the oft-raging adverb debate. While it’s always a good idea to be self-aware of one’s writing, and alert to overusing them… I think it might be time for us writers to consider spicing things up a little more. Or at least, to be more free in experimenting with the medium.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for commenting, Benjamin.

      I like using the book Twilight as an example of overused dialogue tags. I don’t know if you’ve read it or not, but the tags are extremely distracting. While I agree with some of your points, I still stand firm on using tags sparingly. Sometimes tags are necessary when two characters are speaking, but to continuously remind the reader who is speaking by tags with adverbs attached is something I find annoying as a reader.

      I find books with too many tags to be weaker stories. It’s like the writer is telling the reader how to feel. If a character is angry, I can determine it by what they say and how they move, not by being told “she exclaimed with rage” or “he yelled angrily”. Emotion can be conveyed in many ways: through thoughts, movement, and character expressions. For example, take this sentence: “Get to the bridge!” shouted Charles. I would instead write: Charles pushed his companion forward. “Get to the bridge!” To me it just flows better, but I suppose it depends upon the reader’s tastes.

      As to overlooking the word “said” as being a bad thing, I disagree. Many bestselling authors work this way and I feel inclined to do the same, only because I believe it speeds up the plot. I don’t want to be dragged down by dialogue tags when something major is happening in the story. And with regards to an action scene, omitting tags altogether and replacing them with movement is a great way to speed things along.

      I like the idea of “spicing things up”, as you stated in your last paragraph. Perhaps as readers we’re just tired of seeing the same tags over and over again, or sick of tags being used in the same ways as everyone else. As writers we should strive to improve our writing in every way, and creating more interesting ways to use tags is a great area to work on. 🙂 Thanks for sharing your opinions!

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  3. I tend to cue (or precede) dialogue with action, so yeah… I normally don’t use many tags, and I think it works well for me.

    I first thought about it when I joined a writers’ workshop online and one of the first comments I got was something along the lines: “Try to take out as many dialogue tags as possible. You don’t need them. It looks like you think your dialogue isn’t strong enough. But it is, so just let it speak by itself. It will be enouhg.”
    I had never thought about it quite that way, but it really got me thinking. You know. It got me thinking that dialogue was a strong element in my stories and I was weaking it down by the improper use of tags.

    This may not be the same for other writers, I mean, it depends a lot on your style and the kind of story you’re writing, but I do think we should give it some proper thoughts and decide what works for us and what doesn’t.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Great comment!

      Like you, I kept hearing other writers talk about how dialogue tags were unnecessary and your dialogue would speak for itself. When someone is speaking to us, we can tell by their voice if they’re angry or upset, but reading is quite different. Yet the way we write what our characters say can speak volumes! Readers can tell what the character is feeling just by what they say if the writing is good.

      Definitely depends upon the type of writer, though I find high fantasy writers tend to constantly drop tags while YA writers often overuse them at times. Regular fiction is somewhere in-between.

      Like you said: we should give tags some proper thought and consider which scenes would most benefit from using or dropping a tag. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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