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The Craft of Writing V: Dialogue Tags

November 14, 2011

The Craft of Writing V: Dialogue Tags
(or When He Said, She Said Just Won’t Do)

This has been on my mind for a few weeks, mainly because I’ve been neck-deep in editing for various anthologies. I’ve had to take a step back a couple of times when it came to dialogue tags. I also had a new editor for Storm Moon Press mention a current fad that—quite honestly—I hadn’t noticed and certainly don’t intend to follow. So, why don’t we take a few minutes and discuss dialogue tags and their purpose in fiction?

There are three areas of contention, but while I recognized that none of them are technically incorrect, I have my preferences. As an author and a publisher, this is how I tend to view things. 🙂

Bob said vs said Bob

This isn’t about the location of the dialogue tag in the sentence. We all agree that, depending on necessity, tags can go at the beginning, the middle, or the end of a statement. What I am referring to here is the order of the words in the dialogue tag. Compare these two sentences:

“Dinner was delicious,” Bob said.

“Dinner was delicious,” said Bob.

Obviously, both are correct. However, I tend to prefer the first over the second. Something about putting the speaker at the end of the dialogue tag feels more passive. It’s not technically passive voice, but it still has something of the feel. To me, it feels less like the speaker is an active participant rather than the words just coming out of his mouth. There may be times you want that feel, but in general, I urge authors to put a speaker front and center.

Said Adverb vs More Active Verbs

This one is an old chestnut, and a pet peeve of many an editor and publisher. The question is whether to use the word ‘said’ along with a clarifying adverb, or to replace both words with a more descriptive speaking verb. For example:

“Keep your voice down,” Alice said softly.

“Keep your voice down,” Alice whispered.

While there is some disagreement on the general use of dialogue tags at all (more on that below), almost everyone agrees that if you insist on using a tag that you feel needs a clarifying adverb, you’re almost always better off using a different verb. Again, it simply makes the dialogue feel more active. And because adverbs like ‘softly’ or ‘loudly’ or ‘harshly’ are generic at best, they can mean a range of things whereas a good, strong speaking verb—’murmured’, ‘shouted’, or ‘spat’—can give more clarity to the reader.

To Tag or Not To Tag

I was told the oddest thing a few days ago. There seems to be a trend at the moment—though I haven’t really noticed myself—of editors removing all dialogue tags except for limited use of ‘said’ and ‘asked’ to determine the initial speaking order of a scene.

While I agree authors shouldn’t keep saying ‘said’ over and over again, stripping out all dialogue tags makes it very difficult for the reader to get a sense of a character’s tone. Some people say you should confine that to the narrative; I say that in many instances, it reduces the author to a sort verbal gymnastics to get their point across. It also leads—at least when badly done—to far more telling than showing as the author finds themselves struggling to get their characters’ tones across. For example:

“Stay where you are!” Carlos ordered.

“Stay where you are!” Carlos’ sharp tone would brook no argument.

Both these sentences are saying the same thing, but the first one does it in six fewer words. Everyone knows what sort of tone someone uses when they’re ordering people around. Everyone has been ordered to do something and can associate that with a tone. We don’t need to be told anymore than that. By removing the dialogue tags, I feel it leads to purple prose, artificially inflated word count, and awkward narrative.

If anything, you could remove the dialogue tag entirely so long as you’ve established who the speaker is and given us some hint of his character. Is a dialogue tag always necessary? No. Of course not. But in cases where communicating the tone is important, a dialogue tag can very often accomplish in a single word what narrative would take four or five to convey.

More words does not equal a better book.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. November 14, 2011 10:32 am

    Great advice, good article 🙂

    as for ‘ordered’ vs ‘brooked no argument’. I think it also depends on the atmosphere and setting of the scene.
    Though I agree with your closing statement 🙂

  2. November 14, 2011 12:50 pm

    Also, if you’re using more than said and asked, be sure you know what the word means!

    I call it Quip Abuse. “I’m going to take a shower,” he quipped as he left the computer and headed for the bathroom. NO NO NO! That is a statement and not a humorous one.
    OTOH , Dorothy Parker’s reply to her agent, “Too f’ing busy and vice versa” IS a quip. And it takes Parker or Quinten Crisp or Buffy the Vampire slayer to do it.

    I worked with someone who had Fear of Said. His dialogue tags were complete howlers from time to time.

  3. November 14, 2011 1:53 pm

    Blaine — I agree, and I know my example was broad and simplistic. 🙂 But I think that removing all dialogue tags and replacing them with filler narrative is certainly not the best way to go about things. *chuckles*

    Angelia — That has to be one of my big pet peeves. Authors using words incorrectly. While I understand the desire to vary one’s tags, they should be varied with purpose and be used correctly. XD

  4. November 15, 2011 2:32 am

    Oh, no, using only filler narrative won’t create a good flow at all.
    Not that my dialogue always flows well, but I notice that when I put too much filler narrative in, it seems stuttery, interrupted and unnatural.

    A nice combination of tags, filler and nothing seems the solution 🙂

    Angelia: I don’t think I ever used quipped … it just doesn’t look right. Plus, dialogue that’s really a quip, I tend to leave untagged (or add a smile/smirk/whatever in the filler)

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