Wednesday, September 02, 2015

He Said, She Said (Using Tags in Dialogue)

He Said, She Said: 

Are you using too many tags in dialogue?

[This post has been adapted from its original version by Linore Rose Burkard on The Writers' Alley blog)


When I look at portions of work by newer writers, it is common to find them doing one of two things when it comes to dialogue tags: Using too many or  not enough. Both tendencies adversely affect writing, make readers cringe, or tell an editor or agent to stop reading. Since we want people to KEEP reading, how we do avoid both pitfalls? 

First, let's look at the problem with using too many tags (A dialogue tag is when you follow dialogue with something like "he said," "she laughed," etc.)  The first rule of thumb when adding a tag is to ask yourself,

Is it Necessary? 
A tag is only necessary when you need to clarify who is speaking, or to show a reaction that might otherwise be missed. If you insert tags when they are not needed, you are using too many. This makes the writing awkward. 

To tell if you are using too many tags, backtrack a paragraph or two when you're editing your work, and try the dialogue WITHOUT the tags in question. Does it still work? Still make sense? Can you easily tell who is talking? If the answer is 'yes' to these questions, then you don't need the tag. Cut it.

What's the harm, you may ask, in making certain your reader knows who is talking? That's what tags are for, after all, right? But here's what happens: Using unnecessary tags makes a work feel stilted; not only does dialogue suffer, but the pace SLOWS.  A reader may not know why exactly, but they'll be fidgeting for you to get on with it. If you do this routinely, the reader will groan. Don't make your reader groan! 

Is Something Missing?

On the other hand, if you fail to give enough clues about who is speaking, this too, will make for unhappy readers. They will feel as though they're missing something, and this is frustrating. They will have to go back and try to figure out who is saying what. When your characters are really strong, there will be occasions when you can omit a tag simply because the spoken words are so distinctly characteristic of that person, it would be redundant to use one. But be sure about this; use a critique partner or two to make sure. If it turns out that readers are confused, then you need a tag. Keep it in. 

Is it Character-Driven?

There are occasions when it's right and good to use a tag even though the reader knows who is speaking.  This may sound counter to what I said earlier, but the key here are the words, character-driven.  This means that it is important for the reader not only to know who is speaking, but to know HOW the character is saying or thinking a thing.  In other words, you want to clarify an emotion that isn't altogether clear from the spoken dialogue. In some cases you may need to specify the tone of voice; or an accompanying gesture the character makes while talking. 

I would caution you not to do this often, and again, use critique readers or beta readers, or an editor to take a second look when there is any question about this.
Also, be sure not to overdo it.  Having a heroine who sighs heavily once a chapter is probably fine; any more than that and the reader will be sighing heavily.  

To emphasize the point of using too many tags,  I leave you with an old poem by the humorist Franklin P. Adams. (He makes the point perhaps a little too well!) 


    Monotonous Variety
(All of them from two stories in a single magazine.)

She "greeted" and he "volunteered";
    She "giggled": he "asserted";
She "queried" and he "lightly veered";
    She "drawled" and he "averted";
She "scoffed," she "laughed" and he "averred";
He "mumbled," "parried," and "demurred."

She "languidly responded"; he
    "Incautiously assented"; 
Doretta "proffered lazily";
    Will "speedily invented"; 
She "parried," "whispered," "bade," and "mused"; 
He "urged," "acknowledged," and "refused."

She "softly added"; "she alleged";
    He "consciously invited";
She "then corrected"; William "hedged";
She "prettily recited";
She "nodded" "stormed," and "acquiesced"; 
He "promised," "hastened," and "confessed."

Doretta "chided"; "cautioned" Will;
    She "voiced" and he "defended";
She "vouchsafed"; he "continued still"; 
    She "sneered" and he "amended";
She "smiled," she "twitted," and she "dared"
He "scorned," "exclaimed," "pronounced," and "flared."

He "waived," "believed," "explained," and "tried"; 
    "Commented" she; he "muttered";
She "blushed," she "dimpled," and she "sighed";
    He 'ventured" and he "stuttered"; 
She "spoke," "suggested," and "pursued";
He "pleaded," "pouted," "called," and "viewed."

O syonymble writers, ye
    Whose work is so high-pricey.
Think ye not that variety
    May haply be too spicy?
Meseems that in an elder day
They had a thing or two to--say.
So-do you struggle with proper use of dialogue tags? Or have a pet peeve about them? Share your thoughts in the comments with the rest of us! 


Linore Rose Burkard (a.k.a. L.R.Burkard) wrote a trilogy of genuine regency romances for the Christian market before there were any regencies for the Christian market. Her books opened up the genre in the CBA. She writes YA Suspense/Apocalyptic fiction as L.R. Burkard, not only to keep expanding boundaries for her readers, but to explore deeper themes. Married with five children, she home-schools her youngest daughter, preferably with coffee in one hand and wearing pjs. Her latest book, PULSE, takes another leap from the usual fiction of CBA writers with cutting-edge apocalyptic suspense.

6 comments:

Michelle said...

Sometimes you can add a beat instead of a dialogue tag. For instance, "I don't expect you to take care of me!" Kate fiddled with her straw wrapper.

In any case, said is the usual and preferred tag. But most readers don't care unless it is really annoying or clunky.

Ane Mulligan said...

Excellent post, Linore! I try not to use dialogue tags, unless I have several people in the scene and they're all talking. Then I use said sometimes, and actions beats more.

The one thing on action beats, is to make it appropriate. Forget the fingers running through her hair; use a beat that gives characterization or advances the scene. My favorite ones are metaphorical for the mood or foreshadowing.

chappydebbie said...

Well, as a reader, as long as I am not confused, I am happy to keep reading. It takes a lot to get my focus off a great read....ie your, MaryLu's and Michelle's books. Great advice here for writers, so I am definitely sharing it. Hugs!

Linore Burkard said...

Thank you, ladies. Actually, I'm surprised I didn't think to mention "action beats" as such. I probably wrote this column to begin with because I have a tendency to use too many tags. So I'm definitely preachin' to myself! Ane, your comment about metaphorical action beats has me intrigued...If you get a chance, can you share an example? (I know you're busy so no worries if you don't get to it!)
And thank you, chappydeb--you found me on the web again! I'm BLESSED to have you as my reader!

Ane Mulligan said...

Linore, the action beat can be a metaphor for what the mood is, or how the scene is effecting the MC, or to foreshadow what's to come. I'm wracking my brain for an example. Okay, if things were about to fall apart in the MC's life, an action beat with the character dropping something, or breaking something could be metaphorical for the situation.

In my coming release, Chapel Springs Survival, Claire's life is about to fall apart. One action beat I used for her husband was a sweet potato falling from his hands. It's subtle, it's an action beat out of the scene, since they were cooking, and it foreshadowed what was to come. Make sense?

It isn't the greatest example, but I'm writing in three new parts to a play, so my mind is on dialogue instead. lol

Linore Burkard said...

No, that's a fine example. I see what you mean! :) Thanks for wracking your brain for us. I like the title for your sequel, by the way.