Calliope Writing


He Said, She Exclaimed, They Intoned: Fun with Dialogue Tags!

Before we jump in, let’s nail down what a dialogue tag is for those of you who are confused. Hint: there are three of them in this post’s headline.

Fun with dialogue tags - problem with goats

In the above sentence, “he mused” is the dialogue tag.

Simply put, it’s a phrase that attaches to a piece of dialogue, whether it’s internally thought or verbally expressed, attributing the line(s) to the speaker.

If you write a short story, novella, or full-length manuscript, chances are you’ll pen dialogue between characters and will, therefore, have to deal with attributing that dialogue.

Following are some tag sins to avoid to keep your dialogue from being hell to read.

Fun with dialogue tags - Dialogue Tag Sins

Sin #1: Incorrect Punctuation

Tons of articles have been written on properly punctuating dialogue tags.

My point? There’s enough material here to warrant an entire blog post, and there are already plenty on the topic. If you’re looking for a great article focused solely on dialogue tag punctuation, head over LitReactor.

Sin #2: Overusing Tags

“I can’t stand strawberries,” Jane said.

“Are you nuts?! Strawberries are my jam,” Henry replied.

“You’re sick in the head. How could someone like you – otherwise, so normal – like those seeded little monsters?” she said.

“Because I’m human, Jane. Because I’m human,” he said.

“Moron,” she said.

In the above exchange, each of the five lines of dialogue was accompanied by a tag. This is totally unnecessary (as is the word “totally” in this sentence). Why?

  • There are only two characters involved in the conversation.
  • Henry calls Jane by name (so we know she’s who spoke previously and who replies after).
  • There’s no description or action that followed or was part of the tags.

A better use of dialogue tags would be as follows:

 

Fun with dialogue tags - strawberry dialogue

Sin #3: Under-Using Those Bastards

…On the other hand, there’s of course such a thing as using dialogue tags too infrequently. For example, when more than two people are involved in the conversation, it can at times be difficult for the reader to determine who’s saying what. If you’ve done an amazing job at giving the characters distinct voices, perhaps most readers could figure it out…but why make following the dialogue unnecessarily hard?

Sin #4: Trying to Be All Fancy-Pants

Fun with dialogue tags - Orwell quote

“I can’t tell if Billy likes me,” Amy-Sue said despondently, twisting her hair around a finger.

“Stop being modest, Amy-Sue,” Harriet exploded. “You know he has a thing for you,” she said, licking her lollipop and making a face; she hated licorice.

“Whatever, Harriet,” Amy-Sue snapped harshly.

“Don’t get defensive, Amy-Sue,” Harriet said quickly with a roll of her eyes. “It just annoys me when you act so oblivious.” She looked down at her lollipop and inquired, “Want this?”

“Gross! Your spit’s all over it,” Amy-Sue exclaimed loudly. But after a second, she reached out a hand and demanded, “Give it over, Harriet.”

The above snippet of dialogue is too much. As you read it, chances are that you tripped over the words and became distracted by them at least once.

  • Yes, it’s wonderful when you add insightful description to your tag.
  • Yes, when an adverb is used, the reader gets a better idea of how the character said a particular line. That can be good.*
  • Yes, when a character calls the other character by name, it helps create natural dialogue – while also giving the reader a helping hand with regards to who’s speaking and who’s being spoken to.
  • Yes, it’s great when you use a verb other than “said” – reading “he said,” “she said,” and nothing else becomes monotonous.**

But all in the same conversation, and every line of dialogue having a little something “extra” (or a few somethings extra)? You’ll produce clunky, hard-to-read dialogue.

Minor Sin: Spoke Up

One dialogue tag that seems to trip up some folks is “spoke up.” This tag implies that the speaker is being introduced – if not to the scene, then at least to the conversation – so it should never come after the dialogue is spoken; otherwise, it’d be a little late to the party.

Wrong:

“But all I want for Easter is a case of silver bullets,” Tim spoke up.

Right:

Fun with dialogue tags - silver bullets on Easter dialogue

Staying Sin-Free

Dialogue tags are tricky, necessary beasts. But if you treat them just right, you’ll tame them, making your dialogue more powerful and engaging.

There’s so much more to say, but that’ll have to do for now. Tell me:

What are your pet peeves when it comes to dialogue tags? Tricks and tips? I showed you mine – now you show me yours.

And Something Extra…

  • Chartreuse or lime? This handy-dandy color thesaurus can help you pick the perfect word for the color you’re imagining.
  • What’s your reading personality? Let Oprah’s Book Club tell you with a quiz. According to Oprah, I’m an aesthete. Duh.
  • Writing: good for the body and the mind, according to recent research.
*But for the sake of all that’s holy, don’t forget what the wise Stephen King said: “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”
**But there are some words that, used in a certain context, will only make your dialogue read awkwardly. Inquired is one of those words, especially in the above example.



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