The Dreaded Dialogue Tag
Okay, I admit it. I’m prejudiced against dialogue tags. Yes, I know they say, ‘He said/she said’ are invisible to the reader.
They’re not to me.
Even if you don’t share my pet peeve, why settle for something so boring? You write a sparkling line of dialogue, and slap ‘he said’ on the end? Why not continue the sparkle instead?
But first, a few rules of dialog you may or may not be familiar with:
- The ONLY time you need a tag is if the reader wouldn’t know who was speaking otherwise. I’m always surprised by how many NYT authors have tons of unnecessary tags. If there is only a man and a woman in the scene, and someone says, “Excuse me, I have to go to the ladies room.” do you really need a tag? Many times the dialogue itself cues the reader.
- Names.I’ll bet you need them a lot less often than you think. Of course they’re essential at the beginning of the scene, because we need to know who’s in it. But unless there are more than two people, you probably never need use the names after that. Think about it; how often in normal conversation, do you use the person’s name you’re talking to? You don’t say, ‘You know, Bob….’, right?
- Tags slow the conversation. In conflict, nothing kills the tension like unneeded tags.
- Adverbs after tags make my teeth grind. This is the worst offender, and it’s seen as a newbie error. Yes, I know you could pick up a book in your library that has a line like, “How dare you?” She asked indignantly. Turn to the front of the book. I’d be willing to bet that the book was published before 1970. Nowadays, readers are much more sophisticated. Easy way to edit them out? do a ‘Find’ for ‘ly’.
Stephen King said, “The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Word, Steve.
You’re thinking this would be a lot of work? No way! This is where the fun is!
My favorite writing teacher, Margie Lawson, suggests using what she calls Dialogue cues. I’m not going to go into huge detail, because I want you to do your writing a favor and take her Writing Body Language and Dialogue Cues Like a Psychologist, course. If you miss the class, you can always purchase the lecture packet.
You’ve heard that rich writing serves dual purposes, right? A dialogue cue does that as well. It cues the reader in as to whom is speaking, but then goes much farther, telling the reader how the line of dialogue is being said. It can add body movement – and give a glimpse into how a POV character, or better yet, a non-POV character is feeling. It adds richness.
Here are some examples of my book, Nothing Sweeter, before and after adding the dialogue cues. You tell me if they help:
BEFORE: “We don’t need your boyfriend’s charity,” Max said.
AFTER: “We don’t need your boyfriend’s charity.” His voice sounded like a peach pit in a garbage disposal.
BEFORE: “I’ve hunkered down here for years with my hard, silent Dad. I held on tight, trying to keep things from changing,” he said.
AFTER: “I’ve hunkered down here for years with my hard, silent Dad. I held on tight, trying to keep things from changing.” He looked down at his bloodless fists.
BEFORE: “But if you don’t know all this about yourself, it doesn’t matter what I think,” He said.
AFTER: “But if you don’t know all this about yourself, it doesn’t matter what I think.” He shut his mouth, closed his eyes, and grabbed for all the guts he had.
BEFORE: “Oh, Bree,” Wyatt said.
AFTER: “Oh, Bree.” His words trailed off, as if he’d run out of breath.
Do you see how the dialogue cue not only tells you whom is speaking, but shows you how they’re saying it? It’s a perfect opportunity to get the reader on a deeper level, and to write fresh at the same time.
So, what do you think? have I convinced you to weed out dialogue tags?
I definitely agree with almost everything you said here.
I’ve re-read novels — by big name authors — published back in the 70s and earlier and found it unbelievable that (in some) nearly every line of dialog has a ‘he said’ or ‘she said’ tag. Wow.
When I first began writing novels (about 14 years ago), I made a conscious decision to avoid that trap as much as possible.
When I don’t have those little bits of telling action before or after the quote (which, as you say, clearly identifies the speaker), I try to “time” my other dialog tags to about every three lines.
For example (after a line in which the female speaker is clearly identified):
“You can’t be serious.”
“I am. Deadly.”
“But the cops are supposed to be on our said,” he said.
That works, Jeff! I know tags are supposed to be invisible, but to me, they’re like Chinese water torture!