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.
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?
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!”
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.
# # # #
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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