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He Said, She Said: Why Tags Matter When Writing Dialogue

Writing Dialogue in a Novel

Dialogue tags – words such as said, replied or asked – have magical powers.

Why are they magical? Well, because they disappear. Readers unconsciously skip right over them.

And that’s what you want them to do!

When writing dialogue in a book, tags exist for only one purpose: to identify who is speaking. That’s it. You want the focus on the dialogue itself. You don’t want readers to get distracted by the tag.

Editors and readers prefer minimal use of dialogue tags in fiction – and this is a common place where new writers fall down. Writing their dialogue, they think words like asked or said are boring or repetitive, so they try to use more interesting alternatives – mixing it up to try and inject emotional indicators to add to their characters’ words.

But there’s a big problem, there – because in doing so, you’re committing a cardinal sin: Telling, not showing.

The dialogue tag is not the place to get fancy. For a fluid reading experience, dialogue tags should melt into the background.

Here’s why…

Why Said and Asked are All You Need

First of all, if you pack out your writing with little flourishes such as queried instead of asked or exclaimed instead of good ol’ said, it’ll tell the editor or publisher straight away that you’re a newbie.

But more importantly, it’s about the function of these tags – or rather, the functions they should not perform.

Remember, the only purpose of these tags is to identify who is speaking. So only use them as often as you need to, and no more. Even a quiet little word like said will become annoying if you use it too much.

Here’s an example:

“Where are we going?” John asked.
“To the park,” Aunt Ginny said. “Do you want to play on the slides?”
“Not really,” John said. “It’s too hot.”
“It’ll be cooler under the trees,” Ginny said.
“I’d rather go to the pool,” John said.

See how quickly those tags add up? Since most of them aren’t needed, let’s see what this looks like when we eliminate the extras:

“Where are we going?” John asked.
“To the park,” Aunt Ginny said. “Do you want to play on the slides?”
“Not really. It’s too hot.”
“It’ll be cooler under the trees.”
“I’d rather go to the pool.”

There – much better! It’s leaner, clearer, and puts the focus where it belongs: on the dialogue, not the tags.

But You CAN Mix It Up

While it’s good form to stay as simple as you can, it’s perfectly okay to deviate occasionally from asked or said. Good alternatives could include replied, or countered – as long as their use is justified, such as when you’re trying to show the volume of a speaker’s voice.

Take these, for example:

“What do you think they’re going to do to us?” Jennifer whispered.
“I can’t take it anymore!” John screamed.

A word of caution: If you do mix it up, avoid using a dialogue tag to show an action that can’t actually be accomplished in real life. As we mentioned earlier, this is an all too common mistake.

Trying to express character behaviour through dialogue tags – to indicate their physical reaction or state of being outside of the dialogue, rather than within it – is a recipe for disaster. For instance:

“I want to go home,” Lily sighed.

A character cannot speak and sigh at the same time; this dialogue should be revised to:

“I want to go home,” Lily said, sighing.

The same goes for emotion, which often happens when an adverb is added to a dialogue tag. For example:

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.

 

Keep Emotion in the Words, not the Tags

Dialogue tags are not the place to convey emotion. The dialogue itself should do that. If you think you need an adverb to convey emotion, your scene needs to be written so the character’s dialogue and actions more clearly express that emotion. That’s how you show instead of telling – and generate stronger, better realised and more involving prose.

Try this comparison on for size…

Telling:

“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.

Showing:

Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over!”

Here, it’s Simon’s dialogue and actions that clearly display his emotions. What’s conveyed here is more than just the words that are said – and it has nothing at all to do with dialogue tags.

They might as well be invisible.

With the Dialogue Tags, Adverbs and Showing vs. Telling reports AutoCrit members have access to, you’ll never get caught out by these kinds of mistakes again – and your readers will thank you for the extra vibrancy it will bring to your characters, their conversations, and your writing as a whole.

Try it out today by creating your new Free Forever account right here. There’s no cost and no word limits.

 

Join the Discussion on “He Said, She Said: Why Tags Matter When Writing Dialogue”

  1. Ed James says:

    There’s also the school of thought that you don’t need any, and you should attribute all dialogue either by an action or because it’s obvious who’s speaking.

    In your example:
    Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over!”

    the “he said” is completely redundant. Given it’s in the same paragraph, it’s very obvious who the dialogue would be. Therefore:

    Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough.” He clenched his jaw. “This discussion is over!”

    But again, you can overdo it. So every line has an amazing action, but it gets very tiresome. But if you get into a rhythm with the dialogue, and the characters each have a distinct voice, then it’s really nice and flowing, capturing all the emotion and keeping a visual on who’s in the scene and what they’re doing.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks Ed for sharing your thoughts on dialogue tags. You’re right. There are times when action and tags are not necessary and just the steady flow of dialogue between two people works nicely. We appreciate your thoughts.

      Best Wishes
      April

  2. “How does Simon talk while clenching his jaw?” she asked critically.

  3. Burton Voss says:

    Another good subject. AutoCrit’s blog is a welcome addition to my reading.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thank you, Burton, for taking the time to comment on our blog. We appreciate your thoughts.

      Best Wishes
      April

  4. Mary says:

    Very informative for beginning writers. Great article.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thank you, Mary, for reading and commenting on our blog.
      Best Wishes
      April

  5. Arthur says:

    Clear and concise. Thanks for the post!

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Thanks for responding to the blog, Arthur!

      Best Wishes
      April

  6. Very good post. I have some cleaning up to do!

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Hi Laurie,
      Our program can help you through the process. Thanks for responding to the blog.

      Best Wishes
      April

  7. Liseight says:

    Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over!”

    would read even better as

    Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said through clenched jaws. “This discussion is over!”.

    otherwise the chronology between action and speech is just not right, in my humble opinion.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Hi Liseight,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Best Wishes
      April

  8. Jessa says:

    I was told differently, they said to use words that help show emotion: gasped, mumbled, grumbled, quipped, etc. Yesterday, I spoke with my editor and she talked to an editor from Simon and Schuster at a book fare this past weekend, this is one subject we had debated on. He, as well as agents that were there, told her exactly what you said in this blog post. However, he did state that as long as the story line flowed and kept the reader engrossed in the book, that was the main thing to him.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Jessa,
      I couldn’t agree more. What’s important is the flow of the story. Many times, however, writers tend to bog down a story with dialogue tags and often times create a disconnect with the reader. AutoCrit shows where there may be excessive dialogue tags in a manuscript and allows the writer to decide if he/she wants to remove them or keep them in the story. Thank you for sharing your thoughts.

      Best Wishes
      April

  9. Carol Shetler says:

    Don’t sacrifice the clarity of who is speaking by avoiding all dialogue tags. Throw one in every few sentences in an ongoing conversation. Otherwise the reader (I have had to do this countless times!) must rewind to the start of the conversation and count every other line – Speaker a, Speaker b, Speaker a, etc. to follow the meaning of the dialogue. I want to read the story and “hear” the conversation, so keep me apprised of who is talking, no matter what you must do.

  10. To avoid the ‘he said’ – ‘she said’ trap, I’ve tried seeing if the speaker can be identified just by what he or she says. Tricky.

    Identification becomes a problem also when the order of a dialogue is changed: for example, when Character A makes a remark, Character B says nothing and Character A continues.

    1. AutoCrit says:

      Hi Mathai,
      You bring up some great points. It is important to throw in a “he said” or “she said” every so often. And when dialogue changes like in your example, then an action sentence such as Character B shifted uncomfortably, can keep the dialogue on track. Thank you for your comments.

      Best Wishes,
      April

  11. Jose pazhukaran- India says:

    Showing becomes unlimited words.Is word limit important unless exceed it? So sometimes i am forceful to write telling.
    what is your mind about the length of book?

  12. Janelle Leigh says:

    And yet AutoCrit will slam us for using too many “asked,” “saids” or “replieds” which means you must come up with alternatives. Another variation of dialogue tags is putting them at the front of the sentence instead of the back. Also, the examples you used would read better if “said” or “asked” came before the persons’ names.

  13. Darl says:

    Scowling, Simon shoved his chair back, “This discussion is over.”

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