Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Hey, Who Said That? Polishing Our Dialogue Tags

By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Dialogue reads quickly, which is why it speeds up the pace in most scenes and why readers who skim blocks of exposition stop skimming when they hit that dialogue. It's usually where the action is or where something happens. But even if we just read the dialogue, we can easily skim the tags, especially if they're of the "he said" variety. They're supposed to be invisible, and if we know who's speaking we might not even pay attention to them.

Which can be a problem in revisions if you're skipping over entire sections of your novel. Since dialogue is so critical, it deserves more attention, not less, so it's worth taking a little extra time to make sure it's worth stopping to read.

He Said Adverbidly

The most common edit we do is probably to eliminate adverbs in our dialogue tags. Check your tags to make sure any adverbs you use are there for good reasons, and there isn't a better way to dramatize the adverb instead.
"You're such a brat," he said condescendingly. vs
"I see who got the brat genes in the family."

Said Avoidance

The common rule of thumb says, "don't use said tags unless you have to," but sometimes you can go too far in avoiding tags, especially if you're editing in bits and pieces where you're not reading the whole chapter over at one sitting. Said is a perfectly good word. It's invisible to readers, so they usually gloss right over it. Avoiding it, or using solely action tags can sometimes give the prose a very clunky, list-like feel since it's technically one short sentence after another.
"This is crazy." Sally ran her fingers through her hair.
"It's not crazy." Jane folder her arms and scowled. "It's the world we live in now."
Bob cleared his throat. "Do we have to talk about this now? Zombies are almost through the door."
See how clunky that reads? It's worse since I have all three lines in a row, but let's add a snippet or two of description between them, which hides the facts that there are no said tags.
"This is crazy." Sally ran her fingers through her hair. Something heavy cracked against the door again and she jumped. Jane didn't jump of course. She never did.
"It's not crazy." Jane folder her arms and scowled. "It's the world we live in now."
Maybe, but that didn't mean they had to like it. Bob cleared his throat. "Do we have to talk about this now? Zombies are almost through the door."
Still clunky, but it's not as noticeable because the other text is masking it. Let's look at the same bit with an added said and a few tweaks.
"This is crazy." Sally ran her fingers through her hair. Something heavy cracked against the door again and she jumped. Jane didn't jump of course. She never did.
"It's not crazy," said Jane. "It's the world we live in now."
Bob frowned. Maybe, but that didn't mean he had to like it. "Do we have to talk about this now? Zombies are almost through the door."
Still not great, but it reads smoother, and by using an internal thought along with the dialogue in Bob's case, we get to eliminate a tag and still maintain who's speaking without resorting to a clunky action tag. (Based of course on the assumption that you've established your POV well by now and the reader knows the internal thought is Bob's)

Heads Up

And while we'll talking about internal thoughts... Internalization is a great way to not only tag your dialogue without using said or stage direction, but to offer insight into the character and the scene as well. Good internalization can often fix a clunky bit of dialogue, because you're putting the words back into the head of the narrator. It's what they see and feel, not what the author is describing.

When you find large blocks of description or exposition mixed in with your dialogue, look to see how much of it you can convey through internalization. And see what other information you can add in without adding a lot of words so your internalization does double duty.

Let It Out

On the flip side, sometimes we have a character think something that would work better if they said it out loud. This works well for scenes where your narrator is in their head a lot and you need to get them interacting more with the other characters. This can also fix scenes where you have a line or two of dialogue, then a lot of exposition or internalization, then a line or two of more dialogue, and it continues for a while. Sometimes this can become an external conversation not just an internal one.

Empty Threats

Empty dialogue is often overlooked in revisions, because it's so easy to skim past it. There's nothing "wrong" with it, but it does nothing to help the scene--it's just small talk or responses that don't do anything, but feel "natural" for the conversation can often be cut.
"Hey, Sally," Bob said, setting down his rifle.
"Hi, Bob."
"Did you find those extra shells for the twelve gauge?"
"Yes, I did." Sally reached down and pulled a box out of her backpack. "Box is almost full, too."
There are two empty dialogue phrases here that we might skim past every time we edit this. "Hi, Bob" and "Yes, I did." With a little trim and a tweak, and it reads much better.
"Hey, Sally," Bob said, setting down his rifle. "Did you find those extra shells for the twelve gauge?"
"Yeah." Sally reached down and pulled a box out of her backpack. "Almost a full box."
Keep It Moving

Where you place your tags is another thing to think about. A lot of times it's easy to just tag at the end, but all those end tags feel repetitious after a while. Mixing it up is good for the rhythm of the text. You don't want to make every section read the same way (that gets just as repetitious), but listen to how the words flow together and look for the right spot to add a pause, since a tag often works like a big old comma. Ask yourself if you can you get more dramatic punch if the tag is in a different place. This is especially true for zingers or those "dum-dum-DUM!" moments.
Jane frowned. "No, it means we're never getting out of here alive."
"No, it means we're never getting out of here alive," Jane said.
"No," Jane said, frowning. "It means we're never getting out of here alive." 
Don't forget to look at how we say things, not just what we say. Sometimes even a well written line of dialogue can interrupt the narrative flow of the entire page, and a simple shift of a tag might be enough to fix it.

How much attention do you spend on your dialogue tags? Do you vary your tags or do you use the same ones? Have you ever avoided "said" because people said you had to? 

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.
Website | Facebook | Twitter | Pinterest | Goodreads | Amazon | Barnes & Noble | iTunes | Indie Bound


  1. Fabulous post! This is actually what I'm working on as I'm doing my final (hopefully) revision. :)

  2. Some good advice. I especially like the removal of extraneous lines at the end. The internalization section was also good.

  3. Great advice! Especially liked the examples.

  4. Lovely, lovely, lovely post, as usual

  5. Simple, but effective! Thanks!

  6. Most welcome. I love examples. Makes it so much easier to understand something.

  7. Thanks for these tips! I've gone both directions: too much "he exclaimed" "she questioned" and then too much "said" over and over again. I'm trying to find a balance; dialogue is tough for me!

  8. One of my favorite writers, Heather Brewer, does "Said Avoidance" ninety percent of the time. Do you think it works for her, if you read The Chronicles of Vladimir Tod? I think it does.

  9. Working on this in my WIP and saw Becky's link to your blog. Dialog and tags are definitely works in progress. thanks.

  10. Angela, ooo I should have mentioned the "exclaimed and questioned types." Good reminder!

    CO< I haven't read her stuff but I hear good things about it. It doesn't matter if I think it works or not :) Do *you* think it does? If it sounds good and you like how it flows, that's what matters.

    Carol, welcome to the blog! Good to have you.

  11. Another one for my writing wiki! Thanks.

  12. I've been noticing this for a little while in my own works. It does look and sound clunker without said. I try to sprinkle them through dialog tags now. So much easier on the eye and ear!!

    1. It helps to read it out loud as well. I've found if I stumble, adding back a he said can fix the flow. Trust your ear, and if it sounds better with or without it, write it that way.

  13. Oy, I'm actually going through this right now. There are some lines where I edited too much. When I read through it again I didn't know who was speaking. Thanks for the great advice. I sometimes get too chop-chop with revisions and strip too much away.

    1. Time away between reads always finds those spots for me. It always seems to be the first line of dialog after a narrative paragraph that needs a tag, too.

  14. I've made a conscious effort to avoid as many dialogue tags as possible, but I'm not as good with adding description as a way to break things up. There are some great ideas here that I'm going to try shortly. Thanks!

    1. Most welcome. Hope they help you find the right flow for your dialog.

  15. This is one of the things my critique group has tagged me for, so this is definitely helpful. I tried to avoid them so much it made the dialogue confusing. So thank you for the post!

    1. Most welcome! So often we think a "rule" is black and white and we have to do everything that way or nothing, but it's all about how you use it and how it serves the story.