Saturday, September 24

Real Life Diagnostics: Where to Put Your Dialogue Tags

Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

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This week’s questions:

1. Do you always have to say 'said he', 'said she'? In my own mind this sounds incredibly repetitive, even if you vary the verbs used (f.ex. replied, muttered etc).

2. Is it clear who is speaking if I do it 'my way' as per below?

3. How do you handle the position your speakers are in? I tend to try and make things 'visual' - which means that I often find myself describing the looks between people, the gestures etc. Is this not too much?


Market/Genre: Unspecified

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

Background: As a young man, Jay Stevens leaves his home in the port of Dover and embarks on a ship that will carry him to Portugal. In the years that follow, he roams the world and together with his cousin Tristao, he leaves for many an adventure in service of Henrique the Navigator. He even finds his wife, Joana, there in that foreign country, but because of who he is and his experiences of the past, his heart ever remains restless...

Quietly they went to the living room and Joana put the now sleeping baby in her cradle, careful not to wake her. She sat down in one of the armchairs, watching him intently.

“Tell me what happened, Jay, did anything go wrong at court?”

He took a deep breath before he continued, “Nothing different than the previous days. We had some violent discussions, that’s all, and I got a warning that I should start behaving.”

Joana looked at him and said, “The prince chastised you? Oh Jay, what happened? What did you say at court to make him that angry?”

He turned away, his face looking grim. “Henrique wants to start settlements on his newly discovered islands, we are trying to tell him that we can hardly manage the outflow to Madeira and Porto Santo as it is, we need the people to work the land here.”

“That sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument, my dear, and one that Pedro would support as far as I am aware. So why did he get upset with you?”

“I called his brother a naïve fool in front of all the nobles.” Jay sighed, “Joana, I am reaching the limits of my patience. If I stay longer at court, I will say more that is not appropriate I fear. I know it is not easy for you, but I have to leave very soon for the Island again. I have not visited Tristão for over a year and I want to see Joaquim. The boy will barely recognise me and I am his godfather.”

My Thoughts in Purple:

Quietly they went to the living room and Joana put the now sleeping baby in her cradle, careful not to wake her. She sat down in one of the armchairs, watching him intently.

“Tell me what happened, Jay, did anything go wrong at court?”

He took a deep breath [before he continued,] period. You could also cut this tag if you wanted “Nothing different than the previous days. We had some violent discussions, that’s all, and I got a warning that I should start behaving.”

Joana looked at him [and said,] you don’t have to said said here since you show the dialogue next “The prince chastised you? [Oh Jay,] Since you just used his name, you don’t need it again here what happened? What did you say at court to make him that angry?”

[He turned away, his face looking grim.]This is the third time in a row you’ve had stage direction followed by dialogue “Henrique wants to start settlements on his newly discovered islands, we are trying to tell him that we can hardly manage the outflow to Madeira and Porto Santo as it is, we need the people to work the land here.”

“That sounds like a perfectly reasonable argument, my dear, and one that Pedro would support as far as I am aware. So why did he get upset with you?”

“I called his brother a naïve fool in front of all the nobles.” Jay sighed, “Joana, I am reaching the limits of my patience. If I stay longer at court, I will say more that is not appropriate I fear. I know it is not easy for you, but I have to leave very soon for the Island again. I have not visited Tristão for over a year and I want to see Joaquim. The boy will barely recognise me and I am his godfather.”

The questions:

1. Do you always have to say 'said he', 'said she'? In my own mind this sounds incredibly repetitive, even if you vary the verbs used (f.ex. replied, muttered etc).


No. It’s the most invisible way to tag dialogue, but you can use others. However, the more elaborate you get, the more they stand out and they start to sound cheesy. It’s better to stick with the basics when they apply: said, asked, replied, continued, muttered, shouted, whispered, etc. Often, you don’t even need to said the dialogue if it’s clear who is speaking.

(Here’s more on tagging dialogue)

2. Is it clear who is speaking if I do it 'my way' as per below?

Yes. There’s a natural turn taking format to dialogue. One person speaks, then the other, and so on. Once you’ve established the first speaker, you usually only need to remind readers every four to six lines (general rule of thumb). What you’ve done here is fine, though I’d probably cut the second use of Jay’s name since you have Joanna use it the first time she speaks.

(Here's more on where to put dialogue tags)

Tastes vary here, but tagging before the character speaks always reads a bit awkwardly to me (readers chime in here). If you’re showing the person speak, obviously they said something. And if you mention them (either through their action or stage direction) then it’s clear who is speaking. So the extra tag feels redundant to me. For example:

He took a deep breath before he continued. “Nothing …” This would work just as well as: He took a deep breath. “Nothing …”

Joana looked at him and said, “The prince…” And this would be just as clear as: Joana looked at him. “The prince…” or “The prince…”

(Here’s more on punctuating dialogue)

3. How do you handle the position your speakers are in? I tend to try and make things 'visual' - which means that I often find myself describing the looks between people, the gestures etc. Is this not too much?


No, that’s the right way to handle it. You want to mix in dialogue, internal thought, and action. My only comment here is that you have three paragraphs of, “character does something then speaks” structure, which starts to feel repetitive by paragraph three. You typically want to mix up the structures for the best narrative flow, otherwise it starts to feel clunky and list-like. In this snippet, I’d probably just cut “Joana looked at him” since she’s talking to him, so clearly she’s looking at him. You don’t need that bit of description to understand the scene and eliminating it fixes the repetition.

(Here’s more on formatting dialogue)

Overall, this reads fine to me. A few tweaks here and there, and some of those are a matter of personal taste. As long as it’s clear who is speaking and there are enough reminders during longer conversations, you’re fine. Fewer dialogue tags is often better so they don’t clutter up the text. If you don’t need the tag, feel free to cut it. If it works to clarify who’s speaking or you need the extra words for the sentence rhythm to flow smoothly, then keep them.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

11 comments:

  1. I appreciate the effort to not use tags - I don't use any at all. It's a pet peeve of mine, especially when reading a well-known author. Your writing was easy to read and I agree with Janice, find other mannerisms to use (there are websites with plenty of suggestions) that would add variety. Good job.

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  2. I agree with all that's been said. I, too, abhor endless dialog tags when they aren't necessary. Necessary, to me, is when there are several characters talking, like at a dinner table. Even there, if two characters are engaged at the exclusion of everyone else you can drop some tags. Otherwise, I avoid them whenever possible.

    It's curious to me, but there are writers out there who are convinced there must ALWAYS be a dialog tag. Not anymore. Readers have evolved. Once you read books where they're avoided it's difficult to go back. I find myself mentally saying, "I know she said that!" It sounds like you do the same.

    I applaud you for making this effort. Even still, I find myself eliminating ones that sneak in. When I learned to use Deep 3rd/Close 3rd POV from Marcy Kennedy (who guests here often) that helped a lot. Keep going, you're doing great, and you're going to love how much cleaner your writing will become.

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  3. I see tags as a basic set of four options. Janice spelled most of them out, but I like looking at them as a continuum, based on how much description a moment needs.

    * No tag-- this is a good option whenever you've set up a pattern (only two speakers, each in alternating paragraphs). Before then, or if something breaks the pattern, you need other methods.
    * Said-- safe and simple, for moments that don't need more.
    * "the supersaids"-- all the "said softly," "rumbled," and other variations. I think these look awkward unless you're sure the moment calls for just a bit of description but no more. And I hate to use more than a few.
    * "beats"-- Moments of true description about what someone does or how they act, generally as a separate sentence. The most vivid, and the most work.

    I think "said" is a bit boring too, but a string of "whispered"s, "bellowed"s, and so on look like taking too many shortcuts. The real key might be using a variety of the types, and seeing which moments can actually use more of the senses and when to let the dialog speak for itself.

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  4. I agree, Janice. I didn't see much I would change either.

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  6. This was helpful, especially about using the mix. I agree with the assessment. Sometimes less is more.

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  8. I agree. A couple of things come to mind. I sometimes use tags at the beginning of a sentence if there is more than two people talking and not in a pattern. In a fast moving conversation, I think it can be helpful. BUT! only a few times in any story.

    As I read the text (interesting by the way) I noticed that the language was American casual. It felt out of place. Am I wrong?

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    2. Hi Rob, thanks a lot for your comment! Can you help me pointing out what made you feel that way... I certainly did not intend it to be like that... however English is not my mother tongue so I must have done something wrong :)

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  9. Thanks for all the helpful comments! I wrote the above, and as a non native speaker I often doubt my intuition in these matters, glad to see if wasn't too far off in this case!

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