View Full Version : Dialogue tags - what are they and when is too many?

Cathy C
02-10-2012, 07:21 PM
This is the first in a series of teaching threads for readers of the romance room (but for any writer in any genre, really). We're all about teaching at AW, and we in the romance room decided it would be a good idea to coach new writers who are either newbies here or lurkers not quite ready to post a thread. Sometimes even the Basic Writing Question threads are scary for people. This way, a lot of information can get out and follow-up questions can be asked that the person might not even know they have!

So, following is the guts of a series of posts I did on my blog about dialogue tags. What I'd love to see is other pubbed authors who have mastered dialogue tags give tips on how to identify tags and fix them. Here goes:

I get a lot of questions from aspiring authors about dialogue tags. Some of the questions I hear are:

"Is it true you can't use anything except 'said' as a tag?"

"Is it true you can't use ANY tags?"

"What in the heck IS a dialogue tag and why should I care?"

"How can I remove tags and still have readers understand who's talking?"

The purpose of this thread is to explore the concept and use of dialogue tags and then go through some exercises to help you remove those that are redundant and add in those that will make the dialogue pop!

First, what IS a "dialogue tag?" Well, in its simplest form, it's a statement to the reader telling them who is speaking in the text. For example,

"I'll go to the store," Jane said.

Okay, so why is it enough of a big deal that people bother to discuss it?

This is where it starts to get tricky, because how many is too many? The use of dialogue tags is very subjective. You'll find plenty of writers on the shelf today, whether debut or established, who use tags, and lots of them! Some editors have no problem with having a tag with every entry of dialogue. But other editors see any use of them in any places other than where the speaker could be confused to be too many instances.

Usually the issue of tags isn't from the use of the tag itself, but the words used. Other than "Jane said," some of the dialogue tags you might see are "Jane exclaimed," "Jane sobbed," "Jane screamed," etc. You can see how the simple statement, "I'll go to the store" changes drastically with the use of each different tag. The reader is suddenly thrust into a completely different mindset of the character.

Is that a bad thing? Well, it can be a confusing thing for the reader if the rest of the text doesn't match the tag. If Jane is sitting quietly on the sofa and then suddenly sobs out the words, the reader will scratch his/her head and wonder what they missed. Some editors also consider it "cheating" to use tags in place of descriptive narrative of movement and emotions. It's also a place where new writers add adjectives as shorthand to emotions. "Jane frowned" or "Jane sighed" or "Jane mumbled." The problem with a lot of the adjectives is that you can't SIGH a line of dialogue. You also can't frown one.

Emotional shorthand can come across as inexperience and poor writing to an editor or agent. It can wind up in the 'reject' bin without the editor/agent finishing reading the pages (or bothering to tell you why they passed on it.) Why? Because if it's pervasive through the text, it takes a LOOONG time to ferret out and correct before it goes to print. In an age where contract-to-shelf is shortening, editors often don't have the time or patience to teach the writer how to write. And agents know this so often they won't take the time either.

If you find yourself up against an editor or agent who comments on dialogue tags (without really saying what the problem is) it might be there are too many, or at least too many "shorthand" adjectives.

Then the question comes down to what you can do to limit the number of tags when you have a dialogue-heavy story/novel?

First, look at the scene where the dialogue tag occurs. How have you structured your paragraphs? Do you have your characters talk back and forth constantly, or are there more scenes where one character or the other is doing most of the talking?

One of the things you can do to eliminate dialogue tags is to group larger passages together where one character is speaking at length. For example, let's say Character 1 is explaining how a machine works. Character 2 is the listener. Character 2 doesn't necessarily have to interrupt to add dialogue---and therefore require a new tag. Instead, Character 2 can shrug or nod (which can still be shown in the same paragraph group with Character 1's dialogue, if that character is the POV character.)

Next, movement is much better than adjectives to reveal emotions. Think about movies. If a character says, "I'm angry!" but doesn't move, it's hard to believe. But a character who slams doors and kicks walls or throws a plate is obviously angry without him saying it. The same works in text!

Instead of "I've had it!" Bob said angrily.

How about:

"I've had it!" Bob slammed the cabinet door so hard the window rattled.

Which has more impact as a reader?

Another spiffy way to both eliminate tags and beef up the characterization and plot is to add SENSES in place of tags.

There are five senses: sight, scent, hearing, touch and taste (for the moment, we won't count paranormal senses. ;)). Every piece of fiction, no matter what genre, can benefit from the use of the senses. Very often, in the rush of the plot and movement, new writers forget about at least two of the senses. They remember sight and hearing. Sometimes even touch. But scent and taste are two AMAZING tools in the author's arsenal that are often overlooked. The senses not only convey information about the character's surroundings, they often bring conflicting emotions to the table during conversations. How many times have you tried to concentrate on something dull, only to have the scent of something wonderful, like baking cookies (or something horrible, like a sewer back-up) distract you from the task? A woman's perfume can linger in the air long after she leaves. A taste of hot chocolate can trigger happy memories of playing in the snow as a child.

"Yes, yes," I can imagine you saying, "Emotions are well and good, but how can they REPLACE dialogue tags?" Very simply. What is more interesting reading?


"I can't believe you said that!" Jane said angrily.

or this:

"I can't believe you said that!" Jane tried to slow her breathing. Even the scent of cookies baking in the oven couldn't calm her.

Readers know that speaking expels air, meaning she has to breathe in. Using that moment to SHOW Jane's anger with both the exclamation point and a harsh breath, reads better. Also, "angrily" doesn't say how angry Jane is. By adding that cookies couldn't calm her reveals more about Jane's character---she likes to bake, and scents can calm her. This is important stuff to a reader. Little things like this become part of the character's backstory and give the reader both insight and depth into your world. "Angrily" simply can't do that. :)

Taste is also a vital replacement to dialogue tags (provided not overused). How many times have you been nervous enough to taste bile on the back of your tongue? What about a metallic taste when you're sick, or even tasting really strong perfume when someone walks by? Taste adds richness to the text and allows the reader to become more immersed in the story without even realizing it's happening.

Finally, you can remove some dialogue tags by detailing EMOTION to take the place of the tag.

Emotional development is always a great thing in fiction, whether it's a romance story or a thriller. This is a big part of "show" over "tell." You can use the character's emotion to give backstory about what the words are hiding. For example, let's go back to when Jane revealed she was going to the store, but replace "said" with a bad dialogue tag:

"I'm going to the store!" Jane sobbed.

As we discussed, you can't 'sob' words, any more than you can kick them. BUT, the goal is to tell the reader she's crying when she's saying the words---or at least that she's in emotional distress.
Here's a better solution to "Jane sobbed."

"I'm going to the store!" Jane tried to keep her voice steady, but the look on Bob's face revealed he realized she was about to burst into tears. It was the first time she would be back at that store since that fateful night when her mother was killed in a drive-by.

Yes, it makes the paragraph longer, but you have so much more insight to why Jane was just sitting on the couch and is now suddenly sobbing.
Even if her mother's death has nothing to do with the plot or hasn't been brought into the plot yet, it give more depth to the character that can later be discussed . . .or not.

Emotions, particularly emotions that conflict with the words being said, are terrific for beefing up a short manuscript without having to add subplots. It's also a way to add tension between people that only the reader can see. Not every emotion shows on a person's face for the other people to see. We keep much inside us and feel it without revealing it to the world. But the reader isn't the world. The reader deserves special insight into the characters that only you, the author, can reveal.

These are some of the methods I use to remove dialogue tags (and trust me, I used to use a LOT of really bad tags!) What about some of the rest of you pubbed people? Let's see some of you give newbies some tips to get a struggling WIP into shape? Thanks!

02-14-2012, 07:48 AM
Thanks for this. I'm guilty of over-tagging because I never know when to leave dialogue tags out. This has helped to clear up a lot of my questions.

02-14-2012, 08:37 AM
I don't read the Romance genre, but i can't imagine that the basic principles of good narrative story construction are any different in Romance than they are in SF or Mystery or Whatever. The purpose behind dialogue tags (I prefer the word "attribution") is clarity: To keep it clear for the reader which character is speaking.

And little else. Once in a while some form of tagging for emphasis may be desirable, but that's like tabasco sauce on your vanilla ice cream; a little goes a long way. Dialogue tags function best when they are transparent, not blatantly obtrusive. And if the conversation clearly indicates who is speaking, they are simply superfluous and get in the way.

The best dialogue I've ever read in any number of novels contains very few explicit dialogue tags to indicate who is speaking. Strive for that, and you'll write better dialogue.


03-17-2013, 03:18 PM
Any time you have an adverb (Search your ms for "ly" and you'll find most of them.) you have an opportunity to create better characterization and a better overall action sequence by using stronger verbs, showing emotions, etc. (In fact I did a whole rant on adverb abuse (http://nakedwithoutapen.blogspot.com/2011/01/adverb-abuse-what-i-learned-from-nancy.html) and how to fix it some time back.)

Although you can't sigh words, I have no problem with: Jane sighed. "I'm going to the store." if it's broken up into two sentences. Especially if the reader already has a good idea why Jane is sighing, such as they've just had an argument and she uses this to get away from the scene.

Another way to get around tags is to give at least one the characters a bit of "business." Say she's in the middle of cooking dinner: "How was your day?" She reached into the fridge and hunted for an onion.

Verbs are useful in conveying emotion even when you don't explain why.

Jane stabbed the last chunk of garlic into the meat and shoved the roast into the oven. "I'm going to the store." In this particular case, the fact that she "stabs" and "shoves," rather than "placing" or "sliding it in" gives us a clue to her mindset, which can either be explained in Jane's next scene at the store, or Fred can wonder about it after she leaves.

Giving a character a distinctive voice can also help the reader stay on top of who's talking. I have one character who speaks in an archaic form (in a present day novel) so if someone says "'Tis" or "whilst" or "I know not," the reader knows it's him talking.

IMO throwing in several saids and askeds isn't a biggie, especially if you have a few characters talking together. It's when the tags are noticeable in and of themselves that they become problematic. "He declared," "she enthused," "he gushed," "she lectured," and my absolute most hated: "he opined,"* would almost always be better as "said."

Another annoying one is when the author gives out hair or eye colors seemingly only for the sake of being able to say, "the brunette said," "the blonde answered." In one book I read recently, the author only mentioned hair colors once or twice (and not in a memorable way) and three chapters later expected me to remember who was who.

If you insist on doing this, at least remind your reader who on earth has what color hair. Have Mary combing her gorgeous golden curls and Laura thinking of how her own hair is a dirty brown shade and then you can say, "the blonde said." (Though I still feel it's clunky.) Thirty or more years since my last reading of the series and I still remember the colors of the Ingalls' girls hair because the author made us care about it. Oh the other hand I'd be hard pressed to tell you the MC's hair color in a book I read last week--and not because I'm having a senior moment.

ETA: *IMO the only person who should EVER opine in a novel is someone who's being portrayed as annoying, snobby and full of themselves.