He said, she said: dialogue tags

Source: wiki commons

Source: wiki commons

I mentioned dialogue tags briefly a while ago in a post about “crimes” I commit when drafting—I tend to leave out the name of the other actor in a conversation between them and my first-person main character. It’s one of the things I edit in later.

Here’s a more comprehensive set of thoughts on dialogue tags. Anyone who’s read On Writing by Stephen King will know his advice, but here’s a summary:

  • Don’t underestimate the power of “said”. Readers usually don’t notice it, and it lets you anchor the identity of the speaker in the reader’s mind with a minimum of fuss.
  • You don’t have to attribute every single line of dialogue. In a back-and-forth conversation between two characters, it’s usually pretty obvious who is speaking for several lines after you include a dialogue tag. And if you have “X said” at the end of every quote, your reader will get annoyed.
  • Dialogue tags other than “said” should be used sparingly (see example one, below).
  • Consider using character action as part of the same paragraph that contains the dialogue. The action then identifies the speaker.

Example one: too many dialogue tags

This excerpt is taken from Isla’s Inheritance, although I’ve edited it to demonstrate how jarring excessive dialogue tags can be.

“It’s me. Dominic,” he said.

“Dommie?!” I squealed.

“If you must,” he replied dryly.

“I didn’t know you were back!” I exclaimed.

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort,” he laughed, indicating his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing,” I admitted.

I’ve actually seen poorly edited books that read like this. I sit there wondering whether the author used a thesaurus to avoid repeating the same descriptive word—which means I’ve stopped paying attention to the story and am paying attention to the poor craftsmanship instead.

To make it clear: I’m not saying to never use these words. But I avoid any dialogue tag that doesn’t describe something the reader wouldn’t have gotten from the dialogue itself. For example, “shouted” and “whispered” are okay in moderation, as are “murmured” and “muttered”. But there’s never a reason to use “exclaimed” (because the punctuation mark already indicates that the dialogue is an exclamation), and if you’re using words like “flirted”, consider instead describing the flirtation. (“Hi there,” I flirted doesn’t tell us much; “Hi there,” I said with a wink is much more descriptive.)

Example two: a mix of tags and action

Here is the same sample text as in example one, with minimal dialogue tags, and action used to anchor the reader in the scene. (I also used fewer adverbs.)

“It’s me. Dominic.”

“Dommie?!” I sat up straight.

“If you must,” he said, voice dry.

“I didn’t know you were back!”

“Got back a few days ago; been catching up with the folks. Hence the lack of effort.” He indicated his Halloween costume with a wave of his sheet.

“It could have been embarrassing—I almost wore the same thing.”

Because there are only two characters, I don’t need to attribute every line. It gets more complicated when you’re dealing with multiple characters, but that’s where use of action really comes into its own.

Know the rules before you break them

One technique I noticed Aussie bestseller John Marsden use is not bothering even trying to attribute the dialogue. He used this particular technique when he had a bunch of teenage characters chatting excitedly and it didn’t really matter who was saying what. Stripping all the dialogue tags and action out sped the dialogue up to a sprint, which conveyed the conversation’s sheer chaos.

This is definitely a case where you need to understand the rules before you disregard them, though—the same technique wouldn’t have worked in any of the other dialogue scenes in his book, so he didn’t use it there.

Variety is key

As with most things in life, the best guide for dialogue tags is “everything in moderation”. If you mix up “said” with other dialogue tags, no dialogue tags and action, you’ll have a pretty solid foundation for conveying your dialogue and furthering your story.

4 Comments on “He said, she said: dialogue tags”

  1. Elisa Nuckle says:

    Nice post, and kudos on the examples. Dialogue tags are tricky beasties.

  2. Good explanation. These are guidelines I use myself. There’s never anything wrong with good ol’ “said,” but I don’t mind mixing it up sparingly, emphasis on the sparingly. I dislike the “never use anything but “said” or “asked” camp, just as I dislike the “adverbs are the devil” camp. Moderation is a good way to mix it up. I particularly like that you mention using tags to denote volume, as those are the ones I am more likely to use, when I want a wee break from “said.”

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