Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Dialogue tags

The bane of our existence as writers.  Though perhaps they only run a close second to those pesky little adverbs.

Now, there are two types of dialogue tags I want to discuss.  The first being those annoying little non-said tags.

You know the ones.  I've a whole slew of words to use instead of "said" that I received in my 11th grade creative writing class.  I cringe to think about that now.  I've looked for the list, actually, but I can't find it.  I think that's a good thing.

But we know the drill.  Said disappears.  Readers don't notice it.  I'm sure I'm guilty of far too many non-said dialogue tags.  I'll catch those during one of these rounds of revisions.

On to non-said dialogue tags.

Here's an example from my first novel, A Rose by Any Other Name.

“Emilia, it’s great to see you!” she heard from behind her as she was perusing the “New Fiction” section of the store.  She turned to find the store manager, Tom, standing there.  She returned his broad smile.
“You too, Tom.”
“Anything I can help you with today?” he asked.
“No, I’m just doing some birthday browsing,” she replied.
“Happy Birthday!” he exclaimed.  “We’ve got some new titles that just haven’t made it out onto the shelves yet today but they are supposed to be there.  I’ll go grab them for you.  Fiction and biography were always your favorite genres, right?”
“That’d be great, Tom,” she replied.  “I can’t believe you remembered that about me, too.”

See.  It's awkward.  I know that.  But it seems that our English instructors have been steering us away from non-said tags for years.  It's a bad habit we have to break.  I don't necessarily know that this passage would be stronger without the non-said tags, but there must be a reason we're being steered away from them now.

Is it just that they've been so overdone as to seem trite and banal?

Stay tuned on Thursday for a discussion of the other type of dialogue tag.  Action descriptors.  (Or so I'm calling them.)

By the by, I've a website now. Link is my name, below.


  1. I so agree with the use of non-said tags. I try to stay with said and asked if at all possible. Sometimes my characters murmur or whisper though.

    And did you link to your website? I didn't see it...

  2. I did but I did it sneakily.

    It's my name at the bottom of the post. Sorry for that. I'll fix it. Make it more obvious.

    I stick with said and asked as much as possible, too.

  3. I like to mix in action tags like, "she brushed a piece of hair behind her ear," or "She put her hands on her hips" because I can say a lot with the gestures.

    This is a great post about tags!

  4. Great post! I try to avoid any tags, and give motion to my characters instead. Of course, with anything, it can be overused. A nice balance between "said" and gestures helps.

    Nice blog!

  5. Like anything, I think they can be overdone, but I like the variety. I think when you change them with every dialogue line, the thing is that they become TOO important and you find yourself looking at the tags instead of what's being said.

    Just like adverbs, I say use them, but in moderation.

  6. Your website looks great. :) I'm still on the fence about starting mine or not. I reserved my domain name, but haven't moved beyond that. What made you decide to go for it?

  7. hmm
    just rewrote a scene today

    and not a single said in the bunch!

    I'm doomed as a writer...

  8. Aubrie, gestures can say a lot. But stick around for Thursday's post. I'll talk more about action tags then. Thanks for coming by!

    LB, thanks! Tags are one of those things that can become a crutch very easily. Best to avoid them if you're a newbie, like I am.

    Nisa, agreed.

    Roni, thanks!

    Pete, don't worry about it. If they work, they work. If they don't, you'll catch it on a future re-read. They'll jar you and you'll realize that maybe it's not the best way of saying it. You're not doomed as a writer. Just growing with every word you write.

  9. I once argued with someone that I needed tags other than said and asked. Then I started paying attention to tags when I read other books and lo and behold! They were right!

    So now I stick to those two with the occasional whisper or murmur tossed in for kicks.

    Or swore. Just kidding! That's my word verification which somehow seems fitting.

  10. LOL, Stephanie. Sometimes arguing can be just the thing that makes us see our weaknesses.


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