Lens On: Dialog Tags
By Brad R. Cook
Do we read tags, or do our brains just absorb them and focus on the next line of dialog?
I do know this, there isn’t one answer, there isn’t even a right answer, but there are some suggestions.
Today I am focusing The Writers’ Lens on Dialog Tags, those pesky little sentences that hook on to our characters speeches. Most are short, some are overly wordy, but all are packed with information. Do we even need them, though?
For those who are uncertain what I am talking about, Dialog Tags announce who is speaking in the text. They most often are identified as: I said, he said, she asked.
When Should A Dialog Tag Be Used?
Anytime a new character speaks on a page. Dialog tags are there for the reader, as the writer we know who is talking, we can hear them clearly in our heads, but the reader might be a little confused especially when there’s a crowded room of people talking over each other. A few tags can go a long way.
It is essential to tag dialog when two or more characters are on the page. Think of a movie, they way the director jumps from one close up face shot to another when people are talking, they are visually tagging the conversation. It’s no different for writers. Identify who is speaking and the reader won’t have to reread to clarify.
When don’t you need dialog tags?
When you only have two characters. If there are only two people talking on the page then after you have established the order you no longer need the tags. The conversation becomes a back and forth that is easily followed. It helps if the characters have different voices.
When the context of the surrounding paragraphs describes the character. If you just got done writing about the character stepping up to a podium, then you don’t need a tag, the reader will know who is speaking.
If you are Ernest Hemingway.
Said Brad vs. Brad Said
Does order matter? No. Just use one and stick with it!
Which Dialog Tag Should I Use?
Said, always use said. Most readers expect to see said, so the brain doesn’t even register it, we simply read the tag and move on. Because of this it can actually be distracting to use different tags.
But what about asked, whispered, shouted, agreed, or any of the other descriptors? Here’s where the rules get murky, you can use them, sometimes you should use them… BUT you need to ask, should you just use said and move on, or do you need to use a different descriptor.
Which Dialog Tags Should I NOT Use?
Telling Tags. “What a day.” I lamented. This says nothing, one could argue that the writer needs to mention the character’s feelings in the tag because “what a day” could mean anything without context, and they’d be right. But show the lament, or else you’ve missed a great chance to explore the character. Always show. The same goes for declared, regretted, bragged, or… you get my point.
Unneeded Tags. “Damn You!” I screamed. Readers are smart; an exclamation point is universal for screaming, shouting, or any number of similar emotions. Save the white space and add two words to some other description.
Can I Conveying Action With Dialog Tags?
Yes. But…be careful, you don’t want to slow up the pace of the conversation. So use when it is necessary. Here is also where you find two differences of thought. Some say you shouldn’t use action tags like laughed, smiled, or frowned. That action cannot be spoken and should not be in the dialog, but I would disagree. I would say that a sentence could call for action between the dialog. “That’s funny.” I chuckled. “But we really should get back.”
And since we’re on the subject,
Where Should I Put The Dialog Tag? Before, After, or In-between?
Before or after – that’s up to a personal preference and how you identify characters. Some would say to identify the character before they speak to help the reader, others would argue that it should go at the end because it is the conversation that is more important. You decide, but only use one.
In-between – yes! A great way to break up long monologues is with actions tags. People rarely stand stiff as a board and talk. We are animated creatures, usually performing multiple tasks at once. Only politicians like long speeches.
Well, I hope that helps everyone understand Dialog Tags. If you want a fun exercise, check out how your favorite authors tag their books. It’s something I notice now and I always get a kick out of it.
What is your favorite place for a Dialog Tag, or how do you feel about the said only world we now live in? Let us know in the comments.
Brad R. Cook is a historical fantasy author and President of St. Louis Writers Guild. Please visit www.bradrcook.com or follow me on Twitter @bradrcook https://twitter.com/bradrcook
St. Louis Reflections http://www.stlbooks.com/B009271-1211-51/Review.aspx