Dec 10 2013

Tag, you’re it

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“Why do you recommend avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible?” she asked sweetly.

Dialogue tags do good and necessary things. They help readers keep it straight in their minds who is speaking, thus reducing confusion and getting lost in the dialogue. The problem with dialogue tags is when they’re overused. Keeping them to a minimum is the key. With almost any writing issue, overuse is the problem rather than a ‘never do this’ rule. This is true with dialogue tags.

Tags aren’t the only way to cue readers as to who is speaking. There are several ways to do this. Many newer writers haven’t mastered all the different ways to do this, so they rely too heavily on tags.

Tags have some inherent negatives, so overuse amplifies those negatives. When used sparingly and intermixed with other types of cues, those negatives are minimized and don’t attract attention to themselves, which interrupts the story in the reader’s mind.

Negatives for tags:

- They constantly remind readers that they are reading a story. Just when the reader is getting good and involved in the scene, there’s a ‘she said’ that momentarily — subconsciously and for a fraction of a second — reminds the reader that they’re just reading a work of fiction, not experiencing a real moment. Load up on tags, and all those fractions of a second start to add up and interrupt the story for the reader.

- Choppy writing breaks up the smooth flow of dialogue. Overuse can give the prose a staccato, repetitive sound in the reader’s head.
“Hello,” he said.
“Hi,” she replied.
“How are you?” he asked.
“I’m fine,” she answered.

- Overcompensating for too many tags by getting too creative with the tags.
“You’re sexy,” he growled.
“So are you,” she purred.
“Let’s go somewhere quieter,” he suggested.
“That’s a great idea,” she concurred.
This type of tag draws attention to itself, away from the words of dialogue, the characters, and the scene.

- Adding adverbs or phrases to tell the reader how something was said. Rather than letting the spoken words carry the tone, the writer feels the need to describe the tone.
“We could go to my place,” he suggested suggestively.
“Is your wife out of town?” she inquired curiously.
“Yes, she went to stay with her mother,” he responded in a conspiratorial tone.
“Then let’s go,” she purred sweetly.

All of this overuse, repetition, staccato choppiness, awkward ‘saidisms,’ overuse of adverbs and tone description adds up to a mess that creates stilted dialogue and breaks the moment of the scene for readers. It adds ‘tell’ at the expense of ‘show.’

A few other tools you can use to reduce the need for dialogue tags:

- Action beats:
“Then let’s go.” She stepped to the curb and waved for a taxi.

- Internal thoughts. Similar to an action beat, but an internal, first-person thought:
“Then let’s go.” What am I doing? He’s a married man.

- Internal narration:
She’d never had a fling with a married man before, but her lust overpowered her Catholic guilt. “Then let’s go.”

- Proper paragraph style. Keep each character’s dialogue lines and actions (and internal thoughts/narration) in a separate paragraph. When a line of dialogue, an action, or an internal thought/narration is from a different character, make it a new paragraph. For example, look at this paragraph:
“Then let’s go.” She waved for a taxi. He opened the door to the cab for her and slid in after her. “410 Main Street, please.”
In that paragraph, it’s impossible to tell who said “410 Main Street” because both characters take action in the same paragraph. There should be a new paragraph beginning at ‘He opened the door…’ Then, if “410 Main Street” is in the same paragraph with his action, it’s clear that he said it. If she said it, then “410 Main Street” would go in a third paragraph, and might still need a dialogue tag or action beat so it’s clear who is speaking, depending on the overall context.

- Nature of the dialogue. Take this bit of a scene. Isn’t it clear in each line who is speaking?
“Your place? Your wife isn’t home?”
“No. She’s at her mother’s for the weekend.”
“You know, I’ve never been with a married man before. I don’t want to be a homewrecker.”
“Our home has been wrecked for years. You couldn’t possibly do any more damage to my marriage.”
“I don’t want to be the ‘other’ woman. I can’t share you with her.”
“I promise I’ll leave her as soon as my youngest graduates college.”
“How old is your youngest?”
“Three.”

- Differentiation of voices. This may be the most difficult, but it’s the best way. Readers should be able to tell from a sentence of dialogue which character is speaking because of the manner of speaking.

And finally, a tip on how not to replace dialogue tags: characters repeatedly calling each other by name. In natural conversation, we don’t call each other by name every other sentence. We know who we’re speaking to.
“Bill, is your wife not home?”
“No, Stella, she’s gone to her mother’s for the weekend.”
“Then let’s go, Bill.”
“Okay, Stella.”

“So that’s about everything I know about dialogue tags,” he pontificated wisely.

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