Musings on dialogue tags

Floccinaucinihilipilificate: to describe or regard something as worthless.

Today’s topic is dialogue tags. In case you haven’t heard this phrase before, a dialogue tag is the “he said” or “she screamed” that goes after a line of dialogue. For example:

“I love you,” she said.

“But our love will never be,” he said.

“How do you know that?” she demanded. “We’re made for each other!”

“No, we aren’t!” he cried. “You’re a human being, and I’m chocolate pudding! The only thing you’re meant for is to eat me!”

“But I don’t even like chocolate!” she wailed.

Etcetera, etcetera. Now, here’s the dilemma. Using only “he said” and “she said” is boring, because they aren’t always just speaking in their normal voices. Sometimes the character needs to bellow, or mutter, or exclaim–it’s like reading an essay otherwise. For example:

“Please don’t kill me!” she said.

“I will consume your flesh and then make love to your extended family,” he said.

“You monster!” she said.

“Oh, you’re one to talk,” he said. “You’re a Lady Gaga fan.”

On the other hand, when a story is riddled down in fancy verbs, the writing gets bogged down. For example:

“Uncle Fred passed away last night,” she bemoaned.

“I had no idea!” he exploded. “How are you?”

“As well as can be, considering,” she ruminated. “Did Dad mention anything?”

“Of course my Dad didn’t say anything,” he belittled. “He’s dead. I’m your cousin, remember?”

I guess the trick is finding a balance between the two. But what’s the right percentage? 60% said, 40% fancy verbs? 30/70? 90/20, if you have poor math skills?

Imminent Danger (my book) is probably about 50/50. My characters get into a lot of emotional situations, so they need emotional dialogue tags. And short of sticking adverbs onto my “he said”s and “she said”s, the only way I can really see to do that is by using fancy verbs.

What’s your fancy verb/said percentage? Extra points if you use poor math skills.

Silly video of the day:

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Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , , | 33 Comments

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33 thoughts on “Musings on dialogue tags

  1. Candace Knoebel

    I’d say the same, 50/50. Can’t have too much or too little. Just a spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down…something like that. 🙂

  2. I’ve been told to add ‘fancy’ tags as little as possible. They say to describe their physical reactions instead. I think it also depends on your target audience and what they prefer. Older people may prefer “he said” instead of, “he bellowed” or “he sang”.

  3. I think if you can follow who’s talking and the dialogue itself expresses how it is said you can leave the tags out all together. Maybe throw in a few s/he saids just to keep the reader on track. If a spoken phrase doesn’t quite convey what you intend, then by all means clarify with a “he bellowed” or “she whispered” or whatever. All in moderation.
    Letting the work sleep for a bit before a reread often helps. This is one area I find where a lot of my editing occurs.
    Thanks for the great post! 🙂

    • I love cutting out dialogue tags when possible, but then I run into the problem of having 10 lines of dialogue with no dialogue tags, lol. Not the best way to keep track of a conversation. Although I find that sort of dialogue all the time in best-sellers …

  4. Those little quips are so you. Just awesome.

  5. pigeonweather

    My dialogue tag guru is the great cartoonist, Glen Baxter

  6. I used a mix of dialogue tags, fancy tags and what I’ll call ‘action tags’ (there’s probably an official name for these.

    i.e.

    “Maybe this is it,” I whispered. “The terrible thing that they’re going to do? Maybe they’re going to do it right now.”

    Michael shook his head. “It’s too early. The equinox isn’t until tomorrow.”

    “Maybe it’ll take the rest of the day to set up. You know – time to draw the pentagrams and set out the candles.”

    “Sara, these aren’t just humans playing with symbols they barely understand. This is serious.”

    “Then we need to get serious too,” I said. “We can’t just wait in here all day.”

    “I agree,” Michael nodded. “We must act.”

    “So what do we do?” My mind seemed to have stalled. I had no useful ideas to offer.

    “I’m not exactly sure,” he sighed. His drooping shoulders, his slack arms indicated complete helplessness. I stared at him, my eyebrows climbing.

    “Not exactly sure?” I echoed. “I thought you had a plan!”

    What do you think? Does it work?

  7. As much as I think dialogue tags should be used only where necessary and you should try and steer clear of getting too emotional… I absolutely love star wars and the video was inspired. Best thing ever!

  8. I once read an article entitled, ‘100 Ways to Say Said’, and I still believe that the writing should do the talking, rather than the author telling the reader how it should be read. — Make sense?

    If it doesn’t make sense, then the trick is to use your phrase and grammatical marks to do the talking for you, in many cases. Not every line of dialogue needs a ‘so-and-so said’ tacked onto it.

  9. I used to not tag anything at all, until I had a beta-reader (who writes excellent dialog herself) scold me. It’s mostly said, but every now and then I feel fancy. It’s funny, but in my adventures on Gutenberg, I noticed that the whole “only use said” is a new thing, and people were doing all manner of things, cacchinating a sussurating. Okay, maybe not that, but they did more than saying every thing all the time.

  10. wordsaremagic

    I don’t use much dialogue in my non-fiction writing, but I’m always on the lookout for good action verbs that expand the emotional state of the speaker. Sometimes I’ll just put the dialogue in separate paragraphs without tags if it’s obvious who the speaker is. I admit to going overboard with adverbs and exclamation points, however!
    WAM

    • Lol. Every time I read a comment from you, I get to the WAM at the end and I rock backward in my chair, going, “Wow! This person is super intense!” And then I remember that it’s an acronym. In conclusion, your signature is awesome, and I wish I’d thought of it.

  11. I wouldn’t use ruminate with the chocolate pudding. Other than that I think you’re doing pretty good. I wouldn’t worry about it. And if you’re not eating that choclate pudding….

  12. Very useful post. 🙂 I find myself explaining this to the young writers I teach but have had no idea they were called dialogue tags until now.

  13. I try to avoid it altogether at least half the time (half is about 75%, right?). If you do it right, all you need is the quotation marks, especially if it’s just two people talking.

  14. Loved the video — very clever! As for your main discussion, I would say a 50/50 mix works well. But I would also say the words would have to be familiar to most readers, which can be hard to predict at times.

    • Yeah, I’m having trouble with keeping my vocab level down in my YA book. I tend to forget that teenagers don’t necessarily have the same language level as I do. Although they should!

  15. Chris

    I used to love making up my own dialogue/action tags, especially when it came to anthropomorphically drawing attention to my favorite objects and organisms. Then I took a fiction class in college where my professor drilled “proper” dialogue into us. Space here. New paragraph there. And use primarily s/he said.

    I’m glad to find that others dislike only using those boring tags! I feel less of a need to edit them out of some older work.

  16. If you’ve read Stephen King’s book “On Writing, A Memoir of the Craft”, he addresses this. He is one who says less is better, pretty much just use “he said, she said” most of the time. Let the words themselves create the mood or picture. I took this to heart and scaled down some of my extra dialogue description, such as “she said angrily”…etc., but I still use them when I feel it’s necessary. 🙂

  17. tocksin

    I like this post, said without irony.

  18. Pingback: He Said, She Said: Stephen King’s Advice on Dialogue Tags | sairyou.me

  19. Pingback: Writing Tip: Dialogue Tag DOs and DON’Ts | Michelle Proulx -- The Website

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