Dialogue tags can be your best friend as a writer, keeping conversations sorted out in the reader’s mind and preventing chaos. But they can also render the story clunky or annoying if they are misused. Consider the following example.
Davis was upbeat about things. He lit a match and turned on the gas. “Well, there’s gas left. We’re not going to freeze,” said Davis.
Gary was sulky and annoyed. “Not unless you use it all up,” said Gary. He dropped the half-load of sticks he was carrying into the fireplace. Then he sat down on the dusty couch and said, “We’re gonna die here.”
Davis said, “Look, there’s no need to be a downer about it.”
“You’d be the one to know all about downers,” Gary mumbled, referring to the rumors about Davis using drugs.
Davis shouted, “Excuse me?”
Gary replied, “I heard some stuff about you, that’s all.” He was sly and happy that he had upset Davis.
Davis argued, “You can’t trust everything you hear, you know.”
Gary countered, “That depends on who you hear it from.”
Readers might know that they didn’t enjoy reading the above example, but might not be able to really tell you why. The editor will most certainly point out some issues. The overall problem is clunky dialogue tags and telling rather than showing. Both can be fixed by smoothing and simplifying the dialogue tags.
Take ‘Davis was upbeat about things.’ That’s telling, and you could use a dialogue tag that shows it, and not have to use ‘said Davis’ at the end. The same is true for ‘Gary was sulky and annoyed.’
When Gary refers to the rumors, that repeats information that is implied in what he actually said, so it’s not merely an unnecessary dialogue tag, it’s actively a negative impact, an irritant.
In addition, the dialogue tags that aren’t action tags are overused, and each one has a different word. That can seem like a good idea – after all, you’ve been told not to repeat words too much, and isn’t that what you’re doing if you use ‘he said’ over and over?
In fact, ‘said’ is a word that’s nearly invisible. Like ‘the’ or ‘and’, it’s immune to the guideline about repetition. It’s true that it shouldn’t be on every single paragraph of dialogue, but it can be used a few times in a row without throwing off the reader. Whereas constant variations on it, such as ‘referred to’, ‘shouted,’ ‘replied,’ ‘argued,’ and ‘countered,’ all in a row, seem clunky and contrived and definitely draw the reader out of the flow.
Below is a rewritten version of this piece of story. The dialogue is the same, the actions are mostly the same, but the action dialogue tags have been reworked to show the emotions instead of telling, and the tags overall have been reduced and simplified.
Davis struck a match and applied it to the burner, which caught fire with a soft whoomp. “Well, there’s gas left,” he said cheerfully. “We’re not going to freeze.”
“Not unless you use it all up,” Gary muttered. He dropped the half-load of sticks into the fireplace with a clatter, and slumped down on the dusty couch without bothering to arrange them. “We’re gonna die here.”
“Look, there’s no need to be a downer about it.”
“You’d by the one to know all about downers.”
“Excuse me?” Davis turned, stung.
Gary peered at him slyly through his greasy bangs. “I heard some stuff about you, that’s all.”
“You can’t trust everything you hear, you know.”
“That depends on who you hear it from.”
In this example, the text flows more smoothly and it’s clear who’s speaking. Action tags add useful information as well as indicate the speaker. The same story is told, but it’s much easier to read and follow.
Sometimes there are more than two speakers in a conversation, which can complicate things. That’s when action tags are your friend, and when character voice comes into play. You can use action tags to avoid repeating people’s names all the time, and if the voices are different enough, the reader can tell from that who is speaking.
In the example below, I have four speakers. Building up reader familiarity with characters is done over time, and I have only a short example, so I’ve made the character voices rather more distinct than I normally would.
“Sylvia, you can’t pick on Penny like that!” Randall looked up from his computer screen at last.
“I can totally defend myself, dude.”
Sylvia put her hands on her hips. “Bite me, fat boy.” She glared at Randall, who twisted in his seat uncomfortably.
“Sylvia!” Braiden came to Randall’s defense, as usual. Whenever Sylvia went off like the loose cannon she was, Braiden would be there. For Randall, anyhow.
“I wish we could all just exist together in peace, man,” said Penny.
“Shut up, dreadlocks. Randall, back off. In fact, you can all sit on it!”
“And she’s off,” Randall whispered to his keyboard, ducking his head. He wasn’t wrong – Sylvia stomped past him and out into the hall, slamming the door behind her.
In this example, there are two lines of dialogue with no attribution at all, but it’s clear that Penny speaks one and Sylvia the other.
Keeping track of four speakers at once isn’t as easy as two, so just knowing where they are in the rotation won’t work. The author has to clue you in with individual character voices, action tags and names. It can be tricky to do this without clunkiness.
When writing dialogue tags for your story, here are the main points to bear in mind.
- While it’s possible to overuse ‘said’, it’s by far the best plain, simple, near-invisible dialogue tag. Don’t vary it wildly just to keep from repeating it.
- Make sure action tags do two jobs – letting us know who’s speaking, and showing something about the character’s action, personality and/or feelings.
- Keep each character’s actions and dialogues on the same paragraph when possible, especially if someone else will be speaking next paragraph.
- If there are only two people speaking, it’s possible to go on for a few lines without any dialogue tags at all, but don’t do it for too long.
- When in doubt, read the passage out loud – it’s an invaluable tool for hearing whether it works or not.