Handling Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags are not as hard to get to grips with as writers think. They’re the ‘he said/she said’ punctuations showing who is speaking, but because the reader is so used to seeing ‘he said’ etc., these tags become almost invisible. And that’s what writers should aim for – to make sure dialogue tags don’t get in the way of the reader’s enjoyment of the story.
Attributions are a functional element that shows which character is speaking. It helps to prevent confusion during dialogue. Dialogue attributions can be placed before the character speaks, between the dialogue or afterward, for example:
John said, ‘I don’t think this is the right way.’
‘You know,’ John said, ‘I don’t think this is the right way.’
‘I don’t think this is the right way,’ John said.
This functionality allows writers to build seamless dialogue. ‘Said’ is a universally accepted verb that readers won’t even notice, and therefore won’t slow down the narrative. This is why it’s the preferred word, but that’s not to say writers can’t use other verbs every now and then, such as ‘she asked’ or ‘he shouted’, just to change things up a bit.
Writers go awry when they use tags without functionality. In other words, they hit the reader over the head with the obvious, for example:
‘I don’t want to go!’ she exclaimed.
‘I don’t care,’ John thundered.
If there is an exclamation mark in the dialogue, there is no need to say the word ‘exclaimed’ afterward because the reader will already know that the character’s emotions are heightened by the use of the exclamation mark.
In the second example, the ‘thundered’ tag is over the top and fanciful, just like ‘he boomed’. It’s better to show the reader the tone, rather than tell them, for example:
John’s voice thundered within the tiny room. ‘I don’t care…’
The idea is to use tags that the reader won’t notice, so the more invisible the word is, the better the dialogue format. Effective dialogue shows the reader by using subtle dialogue attributions, but also by combining it with character actions to show how they are speaking.
The one thing that will annoy editors when it comes to dialogue is the use of adverbial dialogue tags. Don’t use them. It’s an accepted “golden rule”. They can make the story look amateurish, for example:
‘No,’ she said, pleadingly.
‘I’m not so sure,’ John said, questioningly.
John said threateningly, ‘If you don’t leave, I will make you.’
Each example uses an adverbial attribution. This jumps out at the reader, when dialogue tags should be subtle and blend in with the rest of the narrative. If you see these in your writing, get rid of them. They are not necessary.
There is only one thing worse than adverbial dialogue tags, and that’s dialogue tags combined with fancy alternatives to said, which would be a double red flag to any editor, for example:
‘I don’t want to go!’ she exclaimed loudly.
‘I don’t care,’ John thundered darkly.
These combinations can distract the reader, but more importantly, they show a lack of knowledge of how best to convey dialogue, especially when the emotion of the dialogue is already apparent to the reader, so they don’t need to be told again. You don’t have to tell the reader your character is sad if you’ve already hinted or shown it with his actions or his words.
It’s not the writer’s fault; they simply haven’t learned a better way of writing dialogue. And that’s why we have ‘golden rules.’ They’re there to help writers improve their writing.
A dialogue tag shows the reader who is speaking, but you don’t have to overuse them, which often happens. By that, every line a character speaks doesn’t need ‘he said’, for example, take this scene:
‘Did you hear what happened,’ John said.
‘I was out yesterday,’ Jane said.
‘They closed the roads off for hours,’ John said. ‘Two cars head on, no one was hurt.’
‘Really? I always miss the action!’ she said.
Once the reader knows who is speaking, they’ll be able to follow the dialogue without ‘said’ being said a thousand times. That itself can become distracting. Here’s the same example, but without as many instances of ‘said’:
‘Did you hear what happened,’ John said.
Jane’s eyes widened. ‘I was out yesterday.’
‘They closed the roads off for hours. Two cars head on, no one was hurt.’
‘Really? I always miss the action!’
You can use alternatives to ‘said’ from time to time, such as ‘she mumbled’ or ‘he grunted’, just to make things interesting, but make sure you pick the right words. Better still, show the emotion or tone with character actions, which will negate the need to use tags. Clever dialogue shows who is speaking with few tags as possible.
One golden rule all writers should follow: Always aim for clarity. That way you can’t go wrong.