Dialogue tags are the things writers add to conversations to denote who’s speaking. This can be a puzzle for writers, who often fall into the trap of replacing the word said with exotic substitutes. Their characters bellow, snicker, chortle, demand, query, bark, chirp, and gasp—all while speaking. My early writing included horrible dialogue tags, but I soon learned that clumsy substitutes for said interrupt the flow of prose, distract readers, and become offensive.
Here’s what a reviewer of my book Dialogue for Writers had to say about one well known author: “I am a Stephanie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have snickered and chuckled so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting.”
Here’s an example of dialogue burdened by excess tags:
“Please help me,”Sandy pleaded.
“What’s wrong with you now, woman?”Jack growled menacingly.
“I’m about to drop these groceries. Can’t you take one of the bags?” she begged.
“You lift weights at the gym three times a week and still can’t manage a few groceries?”Jack snarled. “Maybe I should cancel our membership,” he barked.
These dialogue tags are a distraction and actually weaken the characters’ words. And, the tags become a subtle insult to readers. The excess tags imply that readers are not smart enough to interpret conversation and need remedial help with words like pleaded, menacingly, begged, and barked. I feel offended when I read this kind of dialogue.
I challenge you to look through your writing and try eliminating dialogue tags. You may be surprised by how many of these little distractions you can delete. Deleting tags works especially well during short, crisp exchanges between two characters. You know your writing is strong when readers can follow the dialogue without any speaker tags. Here’s a brisk telephone conversation from Stephen White’s novel The Program:
He was dismissive.“You have an idea where we could go?”
“Sure, there’re some places we could go from my house. Do you know where I live?”
“I’m guessing Boulder.”
“County, not the city.It’s actually a little east, near the scenic overlook on 36.”
“Morbul Bismarck neighborhood. I’ll throw my bike in the back of the truck. Give me directions.”
Ron said,“I can be there by nine.”
“Then I guess I’ll see you then.”
Don’t you like this scene without dialogue tags? The important thing is to vary your writing so that no scene contains dialogue tags after every speech, and the tags you choose to insert are unobtrusive.For example,you can place the tag in the middle of a line (“What’s happening?”Ron asked.“Did I miss something?”). Use this technique when there’s a natural pause in a character’s speech.
The best advice I can give you about dialogue tags is this: Try to strike a happy balance between using said after every speech and not using a tag at all. Forget the other stuff, and remember–simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. If you’d like to read more about how to write dialogue, grab a copy of my new book on the topic:
Sammie Justesen is a publisher and the author of Dialogue for Writers, released in May, 2014.
She is also an artist and president of the Lawrence County Art Association.
A new review of Dialogue for Writers
This book delivers. If you are a writer, you’ll find a wealth of information and insight that will allow you to assess your style and discover practical ways to make good writing better.
Even popular published authors can benefit from this book. For instance, I am a Stephenie Meyer fan. She is a master of her genre, but if she had read Sammie Justesen’s book, Edward would not have”snickered” and “chuckled” so much that these particular dialogue tags became annoying and distracting. Sammie Justesen’s book offers great advice from a number of perspectives including the all-important publisher’s perspective. I have no hesitation in rating it a five-star book.
Find the book on Amazon.com: http://dld.bz/dtaRy