Dialogue Tags: Keep It Simple

When it comes to using dialogue tags in fiction writing, I can sum up my philosophy in four words: he said-she said. That’s all you need. I could end this post here, but let me expand on the subject.

The worst offense in dialogue tags is to use fancy words for “said.” Why? The dialogue should speak for itself. Words like “opined” or “exhorted” or “exclaimed” get in the way. Leave your thesaurus in the other room when writing dialogue tags.

Guest blogger Alythia Brown put it better than I could on Joanna Penn’s excellent blog: “On your never-ending quest to find a new way to say he said or she said, please don’t go overboard with substitutes. If you pepper every speaking phrase with a fun-filled synonym for said, it can be distracting and, well, annoying. It takes the reader’s attention away from what the characters are saying. Said can somewhat pass for an invisible word. Readers are accustomed to and skim right over said. However, you should still be mindful of its word count in your manuscript and try to find creative ways to keep it down…”

My system for dialogue tags is:

First line of dialogue: character’s names (John said. Mary said).

Second line of dialogue: he said/she said.

All subsequent lines: no tags at all.

Here’s an example:

“You stole my cat,” John said. (Note the lack of an exclamation point. The words should convey the emotion.)

“Don’t be ridiculous,” Mary said.

“Why?” he said.

“I’m allergic to cats,” she said.

“Yeah right.”

“Come to think of it, I’m allergic to you.”

This offhand example underscores another point about dialogue tags: let the action speak for itself. There is conflict and sarcasm (and underlying anger) in that scene, but I chose not to litter it with exclamation points or synonyms for the word ‘said.’ The words should carry the emotions.

Here are more tips on dialogue tags:

Fiction Writer’s Mentor

Writing-World.com

Lit Reactor

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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Dialogue Tags: Keep It Simple

  1. I know a lot of people who share your minimalist approach to dialogue tags :) Myself, I like a few fancy verbs thrown in now and then for style. Dialogue can carry emotion, yes, but I’ve always liked the added description that words like “drawled” and “bellowed” bring. But hey, each to their own :)

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