Author of Science Fiction & Fantasy

The evil ways of dialogue tags

They are sneaky, pervasive and forever lurking in novels to break your concentration. They will pounce on the unsuspecting reader and hammer that individual into submission to the point where they surrender to the endless march soldiering through the prose.

What are theses hidden monsters? Dialogue tags.

They come in a variety of colors. There are the bold and jarring ones making loud exclamations demanding the reader’s attention. You know the kind. They come in loud colors of orange and red screaming for notice. They are the descriptive kind. Throwing in an adverb for fun, they are the overly descriptive kind! Words like shouted, yelled, hollered and like, often with the dreaded adverb added they become shouted aloud, yelled at the top of his lungs, and hollered insanely.

There are their close cousins who arrive in shades of purple, blue and green. Tags like whispered, muttered or grumbled. These too become convoluted with their adverb additions metamorphosing into whispered softly, muttered under his breath, and grumbled incessantly.

The soft ones arrive in creams and shades of grey that float with innocence in the lines. Tags taken for granted such as he said, she answered, and he replied. Likewise, they often suffer the adverb fate and alter into he said intelligently, she answered with skill, and he replied instinctively.

As a writer, do not let these demons control you. They will be your undoing. Like gnomes hiding in your walls, they will invade your prose when you least suspect it, subjugating everything written to their fiendish ways. In time, your writing will be focused on the tags with everything else second place. It won’t be long until your writing looks like this.

“What are you doing?” Bob asked, with a questioning look on his face.

“Nothing.” I asserted with candor, having nothing to conceal.

“Then let’s go do something.” He lavishly suggested with a tone indicating great promise.

Insanity. Plain and simple. the tags are more than fifty percent of the written words. Do not laugh. If you have read to any extent, you will have seen something like this before. The sad thing is, I am seeing it more and more. It’s everywhere, like some malicious disease, spreading through the firmament that is the written body of work in today’s marketplace. It is not just in poorly done self-published works, but in highly marketed successful blockbusters put out by the major publishers. It is as if the editing gods have forsaken us, having determined we are a lost cause, and have moved on to work in obscurity.

Think of the reader. What happens when they encounter such ghoulish tags? Do you ever wonder what the difference is between an easy read and a book you keep putting down? Dialogue tags strain the reader’s eyes. It is a natural propensity of a reader to skim past a tag as they know it is just that, a dialogue tag, and will add nothing to the story. So they un-focus, find where the writing picks back up after the tag, and re-focus once more to continue. After a few hundred tags, you can imagine how disconcerting that can be. The next thing to happen is the glorious momentum is lost and the book is doomed.

What is to be done? It’s time to get out the pesticide. Eliminate them. Eradicate them. Eviscerate them.

I believe the use of dialogue tags should be kept to an absolute minimum, if at all. The goal in writing should not be subjugated to telling the reader who spoke what and how they said it. It should be in showing the reader who has spoken and how it was said.

There are some simple things one can do. Do not underestimate the reader. First of all, provided you’re not writing in omniscient, if there is only one character in the scene, no dialogue tag is needed. The reader knows there is only one character there, presumably the protagonist, and, as such, any dialogue must be that character’s. If there are only two characters in the scene, or if only two characters in the scene are involved in a discussion, the reader will automatically assume the characters take turns talking unless informed otherwise. Many dialogue tags will not be necessary.

Use actions instead of tags. At some point you will need to identify a character so the reader will know who is talking. By attaching an action to a character prior to the dialogue, you set up the reader with the knowledge of who is talking without using a tag. The reader will automatically assume the dialogue immediately following the action of a character is the dialogue of that character. In such a deployment you actually achieve two things – identifying the speaker, and giving the reader a visual as to what is occurring during the dialogue.

Dialogue does not occur on a blank screen. Actions, inner thoughts and the setting are necessary implants between dialogues to fill the scene. Otherwise, it’s just talking heads. Using dialogue tags does not fill in as the things listed above do.

So why do writers succumb to these foibles? The answer is simple. Yes, you heard it correct. The answer is simple, as in keep it simple. Writers prefer tags instead of filling in actions, inner thoughts and setting because to do so is easier.

Forget about easy. If writing is supposed to be so easy, then good writing would have no value. You have to work at it.

Bob gave me a friendly punch to the shoulder.  “What are you doing?”

I’ve been staring blindly at the people in the night club, taking them in without recognition. “Nothing.”

“Then let’s go do something.” He winks and leads the way to the girls by the bar.

So guard against these evil minions of the writing world. Your work will be rewarded when you do.

2 responses

  1. I have to admit, it’s been a challenge to get rid of dialogue tags in my writing. There are days I wish I didn’t care so much, but then I think about my favorite books, and how much they mean to me, and I want to write like that for my readers.

    That, and you keep pointing it out at WOW.

    October 7, 2014 at 9:28 am

  2. I love your advice about using action to help identify a speaker. Great post!

    October 31, 2016 at 12:36 pm

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