The Craft of Writing V: Dialogue Tags
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.