Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Three Thoughts about… Dialog Tags

Three Thoughts about… Dialog Tags
By Brad R. Cook

They’re the tiny little sentences that let us know who is talking. Dialog tags should be the easiest part of writing, but are difficult to master. Writers try to be clever. Turning these tags into everything from the purplest of prose, to the repetitive monotony of He said / She said.

1 – Said is Not Dead
There is nothing wrong with just using He Said / She Said / I Said. The reader should be focused on the dialog not the tag, because that is where the story is happening. There are memes out there filled with other words to use like… He espoused, She remarked, I exclaimed… there are hundreds of adverbs you can add like He said loudly, She asked excitedly, I hurriedly replied… but all of these are unnecessary. Here’s the secret – Said is invisible – readers pass right over the word without pausing. The reader should be paying attention to the conversation and the tag is just there to let them know who is talking, especially if there are more than two characters in the room. Just use said, and wow the reader with an amazing conversation.

2 – Action is Better
Another way to avoid a page full of He Said / She Said / I Said is to use action to let the reader know who is talking. Actions also fill in the gaps between lines of dialog. Rarely do people just stand around talking without moving. We flip through our phones, cross the room, fiddle with our clothes, scratch our faces, or any number of actions that will help push the story along. If you want you can even combine 1 & 2… “*Dialog*,” he said, crossing the room to pick up his phone… or just say, He crossed the room and snatched his phone, “*Dialog*.”

3 – Tags Aren’t Needed
Here’s the real trick, when you have mastered dialog, you might not even need a tag. If there are only two characters in the scene then every line won’t need a tag. Establish the order and the reader will be able to follow the back and forth. However, if each character has a distinctive voice, either through an accent, or easily identifiable speech pattern, then the reader will know who said what from the dialog. Or you can just be like Hemingway and refuse to use them.  

“I hope this helps,” he said. “You may have a preferred way of using dialog,” he said, knowing everyone writes differently. His lip turned up in a slight smirk, “let us know your go-to dialog tag, or preferred method of identifying characters, in the comments.”

A quick note about Dialogue vs. Dialog:
I chose to use dialog because when I talk about dialog tags it's my preferred word. Not sure why, but it is. If I were talking about opening a dialogue between two people, I would use dialogue. I get that this is part of the British English vs. American English phenomenon. But as they say, the point is not which one you use, but to be consistent. Feel free to sound off about dialogue vs. dialog in the comments.  

Brad R. Cook, author of the YA steampunk series, The Iron Chronicles. Iron Horsemen - and Iron Zulu -  A member of SCBWI, he currently serves as Historian of St. Louis Writers Guild after three and half years as its President. Learn more at, on Twitter @bradrcook, or on his blog Thoughts from Midnight on tumblr

1 comment:

  1. With the two person/no tag conversation, I throw in a name-of-person tag (or something that identifies who's talking) every few lines or so. I know that I can get lost reading endless lines of tagless dialogue, so I figure what works for me , probably is a useful metric.