I spend a lot of my time beta reading for other authors, and one thing that flags a new writer to me is their use of dialogue tags.
What is a dialogue tag?
The most common one is the word “said.”
- “I want to go to the park,” Timmy said.
- Ariana said, “I can’t believe she wore that.”
But some writers are clever and vary the word “said” such as using words like… “added” “interjected” “asked” “yelled” “pleaded” “questioned” etc.
- “I want to go to the park,” Timmy demanded.
- Ariana sighed, “I can’t believe she wore that.”
This is great, here and there, but when you read pages of dialogue and every line has one of these tags, it slows down the pacing.
Dialogue tags do have a place. Using a fancy one, such as “yelled” definitely adds to the story, but here’s what would be better…
Show me how they say their words. Describe their actions and their feelings, rather than tell me with a dialogue tag.
- “I want to go to the park!” Timmy stomped his foot and cross his arms. His eyebrows narrowed into a V above his nose.
- Ariana glanced around the room, then leaned onto the table. She dropped her voice and rolled her eyes. “I can’t believe she wore that.”
Now, let’s return to that important concept called pacing. An entire conversation packed with descriptors as in the last examples would really slow down the reading. That’s where a nice combination of dialogue tags, description, and floating dialogue make a conversation between people flow.
Here’s an example from a short story I just wrote. Not perfect, but an example of using a dialogue tag (Devora asked) mixed with action descriptors and dialogue without any description at all:
Arriving home that night, Derek was already there. “Busy day?” Devora asked.
“Not at all. All the crime must be under control.” He sat on the couch in shorts and a t-shirt, watching some sports ball game.
She pulled her phone out. “Well, I had a busy day. I broke my phone.”
“Why’d you do that?”
She clenched her hands into fists. “I was trying to text you.”
“Was something wrong?”
“Just some type of drug crime going on.”
Derek turned away from the TV and arched an eyebrow at her. “And you didn’t let me know?”
“I told you I broke my phone.” She wiggled her phone’s shattered screen at him, then tossed it on the end table. “You can’t rely on me for everything! I have my own job to do. One that you seem to not take seriously, but I do a lot of good things too.”
When I write, I try to use the least amount of dialogue tags possible, and when I read something that’s littered with them, I find myself detached from the writing and distracted from the story. This is just another one of the many ways to shift your writing from telling the reader what’s going on to showing them.
**Of note: If you need to throw in a dialogue tag, I’ve read that you’re best to just use the old-fashioned “said” because it turns invisible to the reader–minimal slowing of the pace.
So next time you’re writing “said” or “interjected” take a look if it’s really needed to portray to your reader who’s speaking.
I’d love to hear your thoughts on dialogue tags, and when you read, what flags a story as coming from a new writer to you?