Ah, the insidious dialogue tag. It can make or break the reading experience, and writing them is even harder.
But it doesn’t have to. I know I’ve been harping on the “it’s just a draft” angle a lot lately, so I’m not going to bore you with it here. There are several ways to tidy up you sentences while drafting that will save you some time and headaches later on in the editing phase, and dialogue tags is one of them. When I’m combing my drafts, I repeatedly move these around, change them up, modify them, and so on. They can be as annoying as oxford comma placement. But have no fear. I’m here to give you some simple pointers that will help out along the way.
Said is good enough
When you start on chapter one, and for some writers even when they are rolling through the final pages, newer writers have a tendency to over-emphasize fancy dialogue tags. They use a hundred different tags, and find themselves hunting for more ways to accent dialogue, as if it’s needed. Sometimes the best way to relieve your headaches is to drop in the word “said” and move the hell on. There’s no need to beat your head against the desk. Most of the time, the dialogue itself will accent the tone of the voice, and the fancy sounding “shouted,” “cackled,” and “stuttered” are completely unnecessary.
Do me a favor. Take a short break and go pull a book off your shelf. Open it to a random page with a lot of dialogue in it, and scan through all the tags. Hopefully, you will notice how often the word “said” appears, and how often there is no tag at all. We are sort of conditioned from the time we start reading to treat the word “said” as transparent. Your brain is so bored with it, that it just skips over it while you are reading. It doesn’t treat “yelled” or any other tag with the same indifference. Those other tags are literally “screaming” to be “hollered.” They are shameless self promoters, and after reading three or four in a row, the reader will get bogged down. Your dialogue is going to feel slow and deliberate, rather than natural and flowing. And worse, your reader is going to get annoyed.
Do I need a dialogue tag?
Ask yourself this question every time you write a line of chatter. While your at it, ask yourself if you need that line at all. In an effort to make conversational characters, many times we writers find ourselves chatting them up to show off the personality that we spent so much time dreaming up. At the very least, try to drop the tag as often as you can. Not every sentence needs to point out who is talking, especially when there are only two characters in the scene. Even when there are other characters in the background, the focus of a lot of conversations is between two people, not a group discussion. This isn’t a screenplay, it’s a book. You don’t need to remind the reader that so-and-so is acknowledging Mary Ann’s claim that the world is going to end in fifteen minutes. First ask yourself if you need the tag.
For short bits of conversation, you can nearly eliminate tags altogether, and unless something really exciting is happening, or there is a sudden emotional change in a character, just use “said.” What do I mean by sudden emotional change? If one character is really excited about Christmas being right around the corner, we expect the other one to be cheery too. But maybe they aren’t. Maybe their house burned down one Christmas, or a close friend died in a car crash, and they are ruined forever on Christmas. Instead of saying “Yeah, great. Christmas,” they will moan or mumble it. In this case, the tag works for you, to show off the fact that something much deeper is going on with that character. It creates intrigue for the reader, and it makes the conversation stick in their mind. And the really great thing is this: if your characters haven’t been exclaiming and gushing their way to that point in the story, it will stand out even more, and it will stick. The reader is going to remember that sentence, and possible get a hint at what’s coming in the next chapter, or a point of rivalry that might rear it’s head at the end of the book.
The more you cull the tag heard, the faster your story will read, and the more emphasis you can place on the parts where a solid, showy dialogue tag needs to be.
How do I know if my tags are working?
Okay, I’m going to beat the “it’s just a first draft, keep writing” drum again. When you go back to edit, you are going to catch every, single, tag error. Trust me. Your reading voice will do the job for you, so you don’t have to worry about it. And I guarantee you will be cutting more of them than you add. It happens, you get to a point in the story where you need to read the next line to figure out who opened the dialogue, or one of your characters will trip you up with the action sentences while they are talking, but at this point, it’s an easy fix, because you are reading it. The subtle nuances will all come to light.
Wrap up, and simple tips.
Use a tag to open a segment of dialogue, so we know who’s posing the initial assertion or question. After that, leave them out, unless you feel that you really need one. Unlike writing action, in dialogue drafting, it’s okay to assume the reader is omnipotent.
Don’t dress up your dialogue tags unless you feel it contributes something deeper to the story. If their voice can be inferred correctly from the dialogue, then there’s no need to emphasize it with a special tag. At the very least, it’s redundant, and at the worst it’s annoying.
If you aren’t sure whether to use a tag or not, then don’t.
If you aren’t sure which tag to use, then drop “said” in the blank and move on. You have a novel to write, so stop hanging up on dialogue tags.
These are my suggestions and habits after years of being corrected on where and how I place tags. I didn’t pull this out of any kind of manual, it’s what works for me to keep the reading clean. Any time I deviate, I can count on my awesome editor to leave a note about it on my MS, but I’d prefer to send her clean dialogue when possible. You’ll make mistakes. There will be a better way to word things, and maybe you really did need that fancy tag in one or two places. But hey, that’s what editing is for 😉
What are your thoughts on dialogue tags? Did I miss anything important? And how’s that novel coming anyway? If there’s something you’d like me to address that you’re struggling with, drop it in the comment box down below.