There’s no arguing that dialogue writing is incredibly important to your story, but what happens when it gets clunky and slow? If you’re feeling bogged down by your dialogue, maybe you should take a closer look at your tags.
What Exactly Is a Dialogue Tag?
Sometimes referred to as attribution, a dialogue tag is what tells you who’s speaking in a written conversation.
Most school children learn the simple ones first—like “he said” or “she shouted.”
Then, one day in an elementary school, in an effort to grow these children’s vocabulary, a teacher made them stop and introduced the notorious phrase—Said is dead.
Why Shouldn’t I Pull Out My Thesaurus for My Dialogue Tags?
Like a lot of bad advice, “Said is dead” makes some sense. Aren’t we constantly warned against repetition and word proximity when we’re writing? So, why shouldn’t we just access the thesaurus and plug in whatever synonym appears closest to our intended meaning?
Because this advice has led some writers to type out dialogue followed by phrases such as, “she pontificated,” “he queried,” and the most egregious, “he ejaculated.”
That certainly makes you stop for a moment to consider the writer’s choices, doesn’t it?
And Why Is Said Any Better?
When you’re writing a story, you want the reader to be completely engaged in what’s being said and what’s happening. When you use a clunky sentence or phrase, it tips your hand and reminds them that the writer is right there behind the text, choosing these words.
Think of it like a boom mic being in a shot. It’s a normal mistake to make, but it should’ve been caught in the edit. If it stays in, it ruins the illusion that allows readers to become absorbed in your story.
This is where said is superior. It’s an innocuous word that doesn’t stand out when reading, so it keeps the rhythm of the conversation from being interrupted. It is what many people call an “invisible” word.
And if you get bored and want to use a different, more colorful dialogue tag at some point in your writing, it’ll be more impactful since you haven’t overused all the clunky synonyms.
Can I Use Some Adverbs to Give Said Some Oomph?
The short answer is to avoid using adverbs where possible.
This applies to most prose but doubly so for dialogue. When a writer adds an adverb to their dialogue tag, it often crosses the line into telling not showing. The exception to adverbs is using them to add a different meaning to the word they’re augmenting—e.g. he smiled sadly.
If you feel that your character’s speech needs this adverb to augment it, try to rewrite the dialogue. Don’t tell the reader that they said it angrily. Make it clear with their words and actions instead of relying on one word to spell it out for the audience. This can give you a reason to expand your characterization more because it’ll force you to consider how each character would act and speak differently depending on the context of the scene.
So, What’s the Most Effective, Least Intrusive Way to Use Dialogue Tags?
It’s crucial that you make sure the reader knows who’s speaking each time there’s a line of dialogue, especially in scenes with more than two characters. So, you can’t omit them, and I sure have limited your options.
But there’s still a few left.
You can use said, asked, and any dialogue tag that indicates volume, such as whispered and shouted. Just don’t get too creative with the thesaurus when you don’t need to. Not every raised voice is a bellow or a trumpet. Keep it simple, and only tag your dialogue where necessary.
If you’re writing a conversation between two people, each character’s voice should be clear enough that you don’t need to write a tag for each line in order to identify the speaker. If not, then perhaps you should take another look at your characterization.
My personal favorite technique to distinguish speakers is tagging speech with action beats. This is a great way to avoid “floating heads”, which is when it seems like characters are just talking in a void with no movement.
If I need to make it clear who’s talking, I’ll follow it up with the character’s movement. For example,
He looked into my eyes and stroked his chin. “I’d like to make a deal.”
This can make the conversation flow much more fluidly and allows for more dynamic characterization.
There will be many other places in your manuscript to stretch and explore your creativity. This is not the best place to do that. These small mechanics of writing are the cogs that keep the story turning, not the whole machine.
Best case scenario, clumsy dialogue tags will just slow your reader down. But a more experienced reader may put the book down.
Once you’ve mastered dialogue tags, your scenes will be easier to read and paced better. Then, the words that your characters say can truly shine without the reader being distracted by you, the wizard behind the curtain. They will only see the magic.
Written for The Plottery
Ariadne Aaronson is a professional editor and lover of urban fantasy. After getting her degree in creative writing, she began working as an editor with independent publishers and mentoring novice writers. When she’s conveniently avoiding her work schedule, she might be playing with cats, baking, or painting.