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Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Tag! You're It: Talking About Dialogue Tags

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Let's talk about talking!

Dialogue tags are part of any story, but sometimes it can be a challenge to figure out how to keep them from feeling repetitive. "Said" gets old fast. Nodded, shrugged, frowned, smiled can only be used so often. Having a character push back their hair or clench their hands clogs up the narrative after a bit and can even feel melodramatic. Too much stage direction feels clunky, not enough makes a scene unclear.

Dialogue tags work best when they're invisible--either by not drawing drawing attention to themselves or by blending in and doing more than just identifying the speaker. The harder they work, the less work you have to do to craft the scene.

You could eliminate them altogether, but then you might end up with something that looks like this:
"Are they still out there?" Bob peeked out the window.
"Doesn't look like it, but I can hear something groaning."
Jane frowned. "Maybe it's not a zombie. Maybe someone is hurt and needs our help."
"You want to go out there?" Sally pointed outside.
"No. But I wouldn't want to leave someone out there either."
"Maybe I can get a better view from the second floor."
"But that means going outside!"
"Yeah, it does."

Can you figure out who is saying what and when? Probably not. It isn't until several lines down you even know who the other people in the room are. Multiple-person scenes can be especially tough, because you need more tags than usual to make it clear who's speaking. Just getting rid of tags isn't going to work because you still need readers to be able to identify who's speaking.

So let's put those tags back in.
"Are they still out there?" Bob asked Sally.
"Doesn't look like it," she answered, "but I can hear something groaning."
Jane frowned. "Maybe it's not a zombie. Maybe someone is hurt and needs our help."
"You want to go out there?" Sally asked.
"No. But I wouldn't want to leave someone out there either," Jane said.
Bob sighed. "Maybe I can get a better view from the second floor."
Jane gasped. "But that means going outside!"
"Yeah, it does," Bob said.
Hmmm, maybe a bit too far. This is pretty ghastly stuff. Flat, no rhythm, no sense of setting or pacing, no stage direction or internalization. Just talking heads in a box. The sentences all sound the same so it reads choppy and unnatural.

To fix this, it's not uncommon to add description, internalization, and stage direction. All important things to flesh out a scene and bring it to life, but it's easy to go too far here as well.
"Are they still out there?" Bob asked Sally. The motel parking lot was black, and not even the sliver of moon cast enough light to see into the shadows.
Sally scanned the darkness. "Doesn't look like it, but I can hear something groaning."
"Maybe it's not a zombie." Jane crept up to the broken window and peered over Sally's shoulder. "Maybe someone is hurt and needs our help."
"You want to go out there?" Sally looked at Jane like she'd lost her mind.
"No," Jane said, folding her arms across her chest. "But I wouldn't want to leave someone out there either."
Bob sighed and rubbed his eyes. "Maybe I can get a better view from the second floor."
Jane gasped and grabbed his arm. "But that means going outside!"
Bob ignored Sally's funny look and patted Jane's hand. "Yeah, it does."
It's not horrible, but it's not good, and all that verbiage weakens the scene. It should be tense, but the extra text bogs the story down and makes it clunky to read. Every line of dialogue has a heavy tag, so instead of the description blending in, it jumps out because so much focus on it.

(Here's more on proper dialogue placement)

The goal with dialogue and tags is to find a balance between them. Use enough exposition to set the scene and make it clear who's talking, but not so much that it detracts from what's being said. Let the  stage direction add to the suspense of the scene and provide details that flesh out the setting instead of just sitting there.
The motel parking lot was black, and not even the moon cast enough light to see into the shadows. "Are they still out there?" Bob asked Sally, crouched beside him in the trashed hotel room.
"Doesn't look like it, but I can hear something groaning."
"Maybe it's not a zombie." Jane peered through the broken window on the other side of the door. "Maybe someone is hurt and needs our help."
Sally scoffed. "You want to go out there?"
"No, but I wouldn't want to leave someone out there either."
Bob sighed. He'd rather be anywhere but between these two if they were going to start fighting again. "Maybe I can get a better view from the second floor."
"But that means going outside!" Jane cried. Sally gave her a funny look.
"Yeah," Bob said. "It does."

The flow is better and there's a sense of something building. The sentence structure varies, creating better narrative flow, tags are varied between simple "she said", internalization, description, and stage direction. The text is also broken at dramatic pauses that add to the tension. The details blend in, and they actually give more information with fewer words. All the piece work together to move the scene, not just report what's going on in it.

(Here's more on keeping your speakers straight)

A great way to test your dialogue is to read it out loud. Our eyes naturally skim over tags, so we don't notice when they're overdone, but forcing ourselves to read them brings our attention back to them. It's also easy to skim description, because we know what it all looks like. So we tend to read just the dialogue, internalization, and any actions, because that's where the good stuff is. Readers don't know what to ignore, so they read it all. And if it's bad, they stop reading.

And you'd much rather give them a great book to talk about.

How do you feel about dialogue tags as a reader? As a writer? What are your pet peeves?  

If you're looking for more to improve your writing, check out one of my books: 

In-depth studies in my Skill Builders series include Understanding Conflict (And What It Really Means), and Understanding Show Don't Tell (And Really Getting It). My Foundations of Fiction series includes Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, a self-guided workshop for plotting a novel, and the companion Plotting Your Novel Workbook, and my Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series, with step-by-step guides to revising a novel. 

Janice Hardy is the award-winning author of the teen fantasy trilogy The Healing Wars, including The Shifter, Blue Fire, and Darkfall from Balzer+Bray/Harper Collins. The Shifter, was chosen for the 2014 list of "Ten Books All Young Georgians Should Read" from the Georgia Center for the Book. It was also shortlisted for the Waterstones Children's Book Prize (2011), and The Truman Award (2011). She also writes the Grace Harper urban fantasy series for adults under the name, J.T. Hardy.

She's the founder of Fiction University and has written multiple books on writing, including Understanding Show, Don't Tell (And Really Getting It), Plotting Your Novel: Ideas and Structure, and the Revising Your Novel: First Draft to Finished Draft series.
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  1. Oh, really nice. I wanted to ask you, because I've seen this in a couple of books - is there a rule governs how we write tags in these formats:

    'I'm jumping off the roof now,' said John.


    'I'm jumping off the roof now,' John said.

    Do we have to maintain one format or are we allowed to interchange?

    1. Either's correct, but "said John" tends to catch the reader's attention and therefore often comes across best when followed by a modifier that refers to John, rather than to the "said".

      For example, these all work:
      "I'm jumping off the roof now," said John, wryly.
      "I'm jumping off the roof now," John said wryly.
      "I'm jumping off the roof now," said John, who was crouching beside Jill.

      But this doesn't work and produces a dangling modifier:
      "I'm jumping off the roof now," John said, who was crouching beside Jill.

      So in that instance, you would want to use "said John" or else revisit the sentence structures altogether.

  2. I've read books that say you must always use "John said," but grammatically, either way is correct. (I asked my linguistics buddy about this).

    There are times when "said John" just sounds better on the ears to me. I also like it when you have other info in the sentence, and you want to keep John closest to the action or emotion and separate it some from the speech.

    This would make a good post actually, so I'll go into more detail this week :)

  3. I think the flow of a given piece should be the final arbiter on what tags to use and how to use them. It's a tricky balance. I struggle with it, even when I only have two characters talking to each other.

  4. Nice! I love the examples, really helps to make the idea of using dialogue tags pop. As I told my teen writers, "dialogue isn't conversation; it's storytelling." Whatever brings the story out the best, is what's most important.

    Great post!

  5. People say "said" is invisible, but I just got done reading a book that PROVES the opposite. I'm a fan to axing tags whenever possible, but not at sacrifice to the flow. Dialog tags are almost obsolete when there's enough action around dialog--and let's face it, there should almost always be something happening other than people sitting down to talk.

  6. I've done workshops on dialogue, and the bottom line is that the reader needs to know who's saying what. Tags, beats, internal monologue can all serve the purpose. And, it's important to remember your POV character in a scene. Sometimes too many beats or internal monologue tags can create confusion if you slip into the wrong head.

    Terry's Place
    Romance with a Twist--of Mystery

  7. I agree most with what Terry says, it's all about reader's understanding.

  8. I prefer action tags to over the "he said" or "she said" dialogue tags. It's a personal preference of mine to not use "saids" at all when I write dialogue. And I don't think it's necessary to put "he asked" or "she asked" after a sentence that ends with a question mark. It's kind of obvious, right?
    I know, I'm a purist on this--but not on other things. It's just a challenge I've set up for myself.

    Enjoyed the blog post. You made some great points!

  9. In my writing I used to always have not enough dialogue tags and I always knew something was wrong, but wasn't quite sure how to fix it. Now I do. Thank you so much!

  10. Paul, I totally agree with the flow test. That's my number one arbiter on anything in writing actually. What sounds best to my ear.

    Love that quote Susan! That's so true, and worth sticking to your monitor on a Post-It.

    "Said" can totally stand out if used to much. It is invisible, but only because readers are used to it being there so they just skim it. But when it's in every line and drawing attention, they do notice. And it reads clunky.

    Terry, POV is my person go-to technique for almost everything. If you nail that, all these odd little things disappear :)

    Myne, I tend to agree with what Terry says, too :)

    Beth, I actually like asked because it gives me an alternative to said when I have multiple speakers I need to tag, or when I need an extra beat for the sentence rhythm. It's obvious, but so is said when you think about it, so I treat asked the same way.

    One thing in general I've found useful about tags, is that they do add rhythm to a sentence when needed. I've had sentences where I could easily delete the he said tag, but then it didn't flow as well. Two words works great, but more or less read awkwardly.

  11. I have a tendency to use more action dialog tags. It adds to flow and forward movement of the story instead of a lengthy he said, then she said volley of sentences. Adding in names when appropriate helps to let the reader know who's speaking.

    1. Great way to double up and have every sentence do extra duty :)

  12. I used to be really critical of "said" and "asked" but then I've noticed some really great authors using it and it does become invisible. And by really great authors, I mean authors who I couldn't write like in my wildest dreams. So I'm much less critical of "said" now, knowing how gracefully it can be used in skillful hands!

    1. Like everything else, it's all in how you use it. A skilled writer can use them and you don't notice, a new writer might use them and they jump out and feel clunky. Useful words though, when used well.