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Writer’s Insights: Using Dialogue Tags Effectively

Writer’s Insights: Using Dialogue Tags Effectively

He said, she said. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? You’re reading a book and you’re suddenly struck by the utter repetitiveness of the dialogue tags. Every other line seems to have the word “said.”

In other cases, you might be merrily reading along when you stumble across a dialogue tag that sounds ridiculous or even impossible. (My personal favorite is “she grinned.”) Looking back up the page, you see a litany of these things: dialogue tags with a number of increasingly ridiculous verbs and not a “said” in sight.

 

Using dialogue tags is a bit of an art, as most writers quickly discover. So how the heck can you use them effectively?

What’s a Dialogue Tag?

Let’s start at the beginning: What the heck is a dialogue tag?

They’re the short sentences or identifiers that follow a line of dialogue. Sometimes they appear before the quoted material. Sometimes they break up a longer quote. Most often, they follow the quotation. Here’s an example from Slapshot!:

 

Aleks pushed away from the streetlamp he was leaned against, pocketed his phone.

“So,” Sy said.

“You did not score,” Aleks said.

Sy inhaled, steadied his breath. Like he needed the reminder. “Yet you still called me out here,” he countered, doing his best to glower at the Russian.

The older man’s lips quirked upward into that characteristic smirk; his eyes were like blue fire, dancing in the rum light. “I scored,” he said, and this time, Sy did twitch.

“Oh no,” he huffed, “you jerk, I didn’t agree to that, those odds weren’t on the table, you’re the one who offered–”

“Fair is fair,” Aleks said, but it sounded like a question.

“No,” Sy snapped back, “you said if I scored. But I didn’t. There was nothing said about if you scored.”

Aleks considered that for a moment, then said, slowly, “But it would be fair to offer.”

Sy rolled his eyes. They had this argument almost every time they met up. Sy glanced about, then grabbed the older man by the wrist, dragged him in a little closer, hissed, “It stopped being fair about six years ago, from the first time–”

“Hmm, really–”

“—cause if you want a tally, I’ve been keeping track and you’re ahead in this scoring race, jackass.”

All of the purple text in this passage are dialogue tags.

Why Use Them?

There are a few reasons to use dialogue tags in your writing. The first reason is to identify who is saying what. The dialogue tag “attaches” a quote to the character speaking. In the Slapshot! passage, there are only two characters speaking, so it may not be difficult to keep track of who is saying what. When the conversation expands to include more than two characters, however, things can get confusing fast. Dialogue tags can clarify who is speaking at any given moment.

 

Dialogue tags are also useful when you want to emphasize how something was said. In the passage above, I’ve used a few different verbs: said, huffed, snapped, hissed, and countered. When Sy “hisses” or “huffs,” it gives the reader more detail about his delivery. “Hissing” is a low sound, like a whisper, pulling on “ess” sounds. (Pro tip: If your character hisses, make sure they have an “ess” sound somewhere in their dialogue!) Huffing similarly indicates anger, but it wouldn’t sound the same.

What’s Wrong with Said?

Said is one of the most overused words in fiction writing. Why? Because many authors employ dialogue tags with every line of dialogue, and they never use any other verb.

 

Imagine if the Slapshot! passage, pared back to just dialogue, only used said:

“So,” Sy said.

“You did not score,” Aleks said.

“Yet you still called me out here,” he said.

“I scored,” he said.

“Oh no,” Sy said, “you jerk, I didn’t agree to that, those odds weren’t on the table, you’re the one who offered–”

“Fair is fair,” Aleks said.

“No,” Sy said, “you said if I scored. But I didn’t. There was nothing said about if you scored.”

Aleks said, slowly, “But it would be fair to offer.”

Sy said, “It stopped being fair about six years ago, from the first time–”

Wow! That sucks to read, doesn’t it? Not only is every line of dialogue tagged, every dialogue tag is “said.” Believe it or not, novice writers often make this two-fold mistake.

 

Resolving the first issue is fairly easy: Try out some other verbs. Not every dialogue tag needs to use said. In the original version of the passage, I used a number of different verbs to keep things fresh for the reader. Reading a bunch of “he said, she saids” on a page is monotonous and boring.

Swinging Too Far in the Opposite Direction

Once a new writer has been told they use said too often or they’re told said is overused and they should avoid it, they often hop right to the opposite extreme. They’ll completely excise said from their dialogue tags. This can lead to two problems: overuse of a favorite verb as an alternate to said, or a series of increasingly ridiculous verbs employed in said’s place.

“So,” Sy growled.

“You did not score,” Aleks smirked.

“Yet you still called me out here,” he sneered.

“I scored,” he snarled.

“Oh no,” Sy yelled, “you jerk, I didn’t agree to that, those odds weren’t on the table, you’re the one who offered–”

“Fair is fair,” Aleks retorted.

“No,” Sy huffed, “you said if I scored. But I didn’t. There was nothing said about if you scored.”

Aleks drawled, “But it would be fair to offer.”

Sy snapped, “It stopped being fair about six years ago, from the first time–”

Oh dear. There’s no a said in sight here, but it’s still tedious to read. All of these are stronger verbs than “said,” but there’s so much information crammed into each dialogue tag, it becomes tedious for the reader to work through the exchange. People are growling, snapping, huffing, snarling, and sneering—they’re angry. But we also have a character drawling, retorting, and—my personal favorite—smirking.

(Pro tip: Your characters cannot smirk or grin words. They can’t frown them either. Seriously. Try it yourself! You might be grinning while you say something, but your grin doesn’t make the words come out of your mouth.)

There’s so much emotion in each dialogue tag, they begin to lose their impact. Sometimes, people just say things. There is nothing inherently wrong with said, unless it’s the only verb you’re using in your dialogue tags. Try to find a balance between “said” and other, stronger, and more informative verbs.

Not Everything Needs to Be Tagged

The other issue in the all-said example is that every line of dialogue is tagged. It’s unnecessary and creates too much repetition. The issue is still present in the version where I excised “said.”

 

This is the biggest rule writers need to learn: Not every line of dialogue needs a dialogue tag. If you find yourself writing “said, said, said,” over and over again, or doing mental gymnastics to think of new and weird synonyms, take a step back. How many dialogue tags are on the page? Then ask yourself if you really need them all.

The Slapshot! passage I’ve copied here is a little heavy on dialogue tags. Nonetheless, I’ve completely omitted a dialogue tag in the last two lines of the passage:

 

“Hmm, really–”

“—cause if you want a tally, I’ve been keeping track and you’re ahead in this scoring race, jackass.”

The last two lines of dialogue can’t really carry tags, because they’re both interrupted. In theory, I could have placed on at the end of Sy’s final line, but it didn’t feel necessary.

Another Example

In a later scene, Aleks and Sy encounter a taxi driver and have the following exchange:

“Evening,” the driver said, glancing up into his mirror. “Good night, boys?”

“Pretty good,” Sy replied, looking over at Aleks, who merely nodded. He was going to keep his mouth shut.

“Awesome,” the guy said, “where ya going?”

“Alexandria,” Sy offered, typed out his address and turned his phone toward the driver.

He nodded his assent. “Cool. You two Stars fans?”

Another quick glance between them. “Something like that,” Sy murmured.

“’cause you got Tremblay’s number on your hat,” the driver said, pointing, making eye contact with Sy through the mirror again.

Shit, shit, shit, he’d completely forgotten about that. “You a fan?” Sy asked cautiously.

“Nah,” he said, “I’m a football fan. But, y’know, Tremblay’s something. DC’s not a hockey town, but man, you’d think we were after that guy showed up.”

Sy caught Aleks’s gaze, almost sighed in relief. “Yeah,” he agreed, “it’s pretty crazy.”

“How’d the game go?”

“Ehhhhhhhh,” Sy said.

“Well,” Aleks offered, grinning, “if you are Pittsburgh fan.”

   “Ha! Shitsburgh?”

                  “Shits … burgh?”

                  “Where you from, man? You got a funny accent.”

“Russia,” Aleks replied.

“Oh, shit, cool. You’re not, like, a diplomat or a spy or something, are you?”

“If I am spy, why would I tell you?” Aleks frowned deeply. He wasn’t following the guy.

“Ha, good point, I guess.”

Breaking It Down

There are about twenty lines of dialogue here, broken up with a little bit of description. Of those twenty lines, seven do not have dialogue tags. Despite the conversation having three participants, it’s still not necessary to identify the speaker every time.

“How’d the game go?”  We know this is the driver, because Sy and Aleks both played the game. They wouldn’t need to ask.

“Ehhhhhhhh,” Sy said. I need to identify the speaker here, because either Aleks or Sy could reply. In fact, both of them do.

“Well,” Aleks offered, grinning, “if you are Pittsburgh fan.” I could maybe not have identified Aleks here; his enthusiasm for his team’s win might give him away.

“Ha! Shitsburgh?” This is the driver’s reply, evidenced by laughter – Sy probably wouldn’t have a reason to laugh at Aleks’s answer or inquire about “Shitsburgh.”

“Shits … burgh?” This is clearly Aleks, who is confused by the term. Sy, being in DC sports, has likely heard it before and maybe used it himself. Aleks, being Russian and in Pittsburgh, probably hasn’t.

“Where you from, man? You got a funny accent.” This is the driver again. Sy knows where Aleks is from.

“Russia,” Aleks replied. Either Sy or Aleks could answer the question, so the speaker needs to be identified.

“Oh, shit, cool. You’re not, like, a diplomat or a spy or something, are you?” Again, this must be the driver. Sy wouldn’t ask this question.

“If I am spy, why would I tell you?” Aleks frowned deeply. He wasn’t following the guy. Aleks’s rough English gives him away, so it’s not necessary to use a dialogue tag. However, his actions need to be given: “why would I tell you” could be read as a joke otherwise.

“Ha, good point, I guess.” The driver again, now somewhat identified by his mode of speaking, as well as his acknowledgment of the ridiculousness of his question. Technically, this could be Sy responding to Aleks’s wit, but the “I guess” makes it more likely this is the driver conceding he’s asked a stupid question.

Learning a Balancing Act

From the analysis of the Slapshot! passages here, it should be clear how writers need to approach dialogue tags: as a fine balance. You don’t want only “saids,” but you also don’t want your dialogue tags to be completely full of weird verbs.

You also don’t want your dialogue tags to follow every single line of dialogue. Learning where to place them for maximum effect takes some practice. Your first (and natural) instinct will be to place them after every line of dialogue. A book isn’t a screenplay. Context guides the reader.

Keep a thesaurus handy and drop hints so your reader can follow the flow of conversation without needing a “he said, she said” play-by-play. You’ll be well on your way to using dialogue tags effectively.


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