He Said, She Said: Deb Erika Talks Dialogue Tags

Erika MarksOn the planet Writing (which I’m fairly certain wasn’t one of the two new “Earths” they recently discovered) there is a general feeling that dialogue tags should be kept to the basics.

He said, she said. He asked, she asked.

Now me, I’m what you might call a recovering tag-a-holic.

When I first started writing—and writing dialogue—I was a big fan of the “exclaimers” and the “shriekers”, the “whisperers” and the “demanders.” After all, my protagonists must have been passionate about one another–they didn’t just “say” things, they “snorted” and “screamed” them. I could practically feel the heat from the pages singing my fingertips! Show me a singe-worthy “said” or a scorn-worthy “ask” and I’ll show you a sleeping reader!

Then came the day when I learned a terrible and beautiful truth: Turns out, readers can get stuck on those pesky, overwrought tags. Turns out, when you use “said” or “asked” the reader actually rolls right over it, un-stumbling, through the line of dialogue, which is, of course, what we writers want.

Gulp.

It was a tough transition.

I don’t know about you all, but I have some kind of Pavlovian thing with dialogue tags. I get so wrapped up in my dialogue, I can’t bear to put something as understated as a “said” on the heels of a scorned woman’s three sentence, bawling rant. How will the reader know my character is outraged/hurt/appalled/stunned unless I use a like-minded tag?

Wait…what did you say?

You mean I can just trust that the words will make that clear?

Really?

Oh.

I didn’t believe it at first either. (Heck, some days I still don’t.) So I did an experiment. I took a single scene and replaced every tag with “said” or “ask” and the result shocked me.

Turns out, your dialogue should—and can—stand on its own.

The following scene should read as um, dramatically, with simple tags:

“You knew all along, Peter. I saw the way you looked at Julian tonight,” Helena cried. “You were incensed. Your skin practically bubbled with it!”

“How dare you lie?” gasped Julian. “I know for a fact you need glasses for distance, and yours were on the table the whole time!”

Now, without the gratuitous tags:

“You knew all along, Peter. I saw the way you looked at Julian tonight,” Helena said. “You were incensed. Your skin practically bubbled with it!”

“How dare you lie?” asked Julian. “I know for a fact you need glasses for distance, and yours were on the table the whole time!”

Cool, huh?

Now, this is not to say I never use dialogue tags other than “said” or “asked”—LITTLE GALE GUMBO has plenty of examples to show that I do—but I like to think I use them sparingly. And I do agree that less is more. I also agree that like so many bad habits, it is one that I will continue to fight. But I do believe admitting the problem is half the battle.

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So what about you all? Do you dabble in diverse tags? Do you stick to the basics, or do you think dialogue tags get a bad wrap? (Yes, that was a bad post-holiday pun. Is there a good one? she demanded? Er, I mean, asked.)

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10 thoughts on “He Said, She Said: Deb Erika Talks Dialogue Tags

  1. Like you, I’m not claiming never to use anything other than “said” or “asked,” but I do try to keep it to a minimum. In fact, if I can get away without using a tag at all (say, by pinning the dialogue to a character’s action instead) I’ll do that. If the action described makes it obvious who’s speaking, a dialogue tag is redundant.

    Though I have to admit I’m fond of “Tom Swifties” (where the dialogue tag is basically a pun based on the dialogue itself), like “I’ll have a martini,” Linda said drily. Or “Eureka!” Marie Curie said radiantly. “Watch out for lightning,” Tom said strikingly. And so forth. (Er, not that I ever use them in my books. I just find them amusing.)

    • Linda, I agree on the lack-of-tag trend too–absolutely. Like you, I try to avoid them if possible. It really is a question of rhythm, isn’t it? I find I have to read my stretches of dialogue aloud to really understand if it’s flowing–where to put those tags, where not to–because if you go too long without them, the reader can get lost (“Wait? Who’s talking now?”) and I know I’ve had to go back plenty of times in books to figure out who said what.

      • It IS all about the rhythm, isn’t it? That’s why I read my books aloud (after making sure I’m alone in the house) — the ear will catch so much that the eyes can’t.

        And, yeah, it’s easy to go too far in the direction of avoiding tags altogether. I hate having to back up while I’m reading just to figure out who said what.

        • Yes – I’ve seen this, too, where the author is so afraid of tags that there aren’t any and you lose track of who is speaking. Especially frustrating when there are more than two people speaking!

  2. I tend toward minimalism in tagging, including one only when absolutely necessary. That said, I also agree about your rhythm comment, and it seems like that drives the tagging more than anything — said, asked, neither, or something more. I’ve never thought of it as rhythm, but exactly!

    • Hi Julia! Minimalism is the perfect word for it–to see tags as functional and not as dressing, maybe? Like I said, it can be a hard habit to break–and I can fall back into it–and the adverbs, too, as Linda was mentioning…

    • Thanks, Joanne! exactly–like so many things, you know when it’s not working–it can be so glaring! I really think it’s one of those components of writing that we all assume is easy but is actually quite tough–and those that are really good at make it look easy.

  3. Reading this post made me think of my fourth grade teacher who made us a big SAID IS DEAD poster, where we had to come up with all the words–“cried” “gasped” “belched” whatever–that could replace said. At the time, of course, it was a lesson in vocabulary and writing more expressively. But I always think about that when talking about dialogue tags. Which, oddly enough, happens more than just today. So is the life of writerly nerds like us!

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