In our last post on writing tips, we gave general advice on how to write good dialogue. Today, we want to blog about so-called dialogue tags.
A dialogue tag is a verb such as “said” or “asked.” The function of a dialogue tag is to let the reader know who’s speaking. If used correctly, dialogue tags are a good thing because they avoid confusion, so here’s some advice on how to use dialogue tags:
1) Avoid “creative” dialogue tags
Some writers become overly creative when it comes to dialogue tags. They seem to think that “said” is boring, so they use a plethora of tags such as whined, admitted, yelled, grumbled, etc. Please don’t do that.
“Said” and “asked” (and the occasional “shouted” or “whispered”) are actually the best verbs to use in a dialogue tag. Readers’ minds skip over it, while other tags pull the readers’ attention away from the dialogue and become a distraction.
Creative dialogue tags are telling (more about telling here). They explain the dialogue to the reader, which can come across as patronizing.
“Give me the hat,” he demanded.
The words themselves are a demand, so we don’t need the dialogue tag to tell us. Let the words of the dialogue show us instead. If you feel the need to use a tag other than said, it’s often a sign of weak dialogue. Rewrite the dialogue and the descriptions of body language, actions, and facial expressions to make it stronger.
2) Use adverbs in dialogue tags sparingly
Similarly to the use of creative verbs in dialogue tags, adverbs explain the dialogue to the reader, which can come across as patronizing. Instead of telling through adverbs, show us the emotion through the words and the body language.
“Give me the hat!” she said angrily.
This line of dialogue could be rewritten into:
She jumped up and clutched the edge of the table. “Give me the damn hat. Now!”
3) Don’t use dialogue tags that are physically impossible
Since you can’t laugh, smile, grin, growl, moan, etc. a sentence, please don’t use these words as dialogue tags.
Incorrect: “No way,” she laughed.
Correct: “No way.” She laughed.
4) Don’t overuse dialogue tags
Not every line of dialogue needs a dialogue tag. If it’s already clear who’s talking, cut out the dialogue tag and let the dialogue stand on its own. In a conversation between two people, you can usually go for three exchanges without tags. In conversations between more people, you need more speaker attributions.
5) Replace some dialogue tags with action beats
Instead of using a dialogue tag, action beats can also let readers know who’s talking. Action beats are sentences that describe the actions or body language of a character. Don’t use the same meaningless gestures all the time. Smiling, nodding, shrugging, sighing, or gazing at each other get repetitive after a while. Use action beats that are unique to the character and the situation. Action beats that show us subtext or contradict what the characters say are especially interesting.
“What makes you think I’m nervous?” She patted her pockets as if searching for a pack of cigarettes, even though she’d given up smoking weeks ago. “I’m the picture of cool, calm, and collected.”
6) Avoid double attribution
Action beats and dialogue tags have the same purpose: letting readers know who’s talking. If you already used an action beat to identify the speaker, there’s no need to attach a dialogue tag the line of dialogue too. Use a tag or an action beat, not both.
Incorrect: “I hate broccoli,” Jill said, wrinkling her nose.
Incorrect: Jill wrinkled her nose. “I hate broccoli,” she said.
Correct: Jill wrinkled her nose. “I hate broccoli.”
7) Don’t delay dialogue tags too long
Get the dialogue tag in as early as possible in the sentence, so readers don’t have to wait to find out who’s talking.
Incorrect: “Damn. And here I thought we’d get some peace and quiet once all the trappers and emigrants headed west,” Charlie said.
Correct: “Damn,” Charlie said. “And here I thought we’d get some peace and quiet once all the trappers and emigrants headed west.”
8) Don’t describe the way someone speaks before he or she actually speaks
If you use introductory dialogue tags, you can end up describing the way a character speaks before he or she even says a word. Place the description of how a line of dialogue is spoken after the dialogue.
Incorrect: In a voice that sounded like nails scratching over a blackboard, she shouted, “Get back here!”
Correct: “Get back here!” she shouted in a voice that sounded like nails scratching over a blackboard.
We’ll blog about how to punctuate dialogue in June, so check back or subscribe to our blog.
Have a great Sunday, everyone!
The Ylva team