Newbie Mistakes #2: Dialogue Tag, You’re It!

21 Jan

On one side of my classroom I’ve got a display, inherited from the lovely lady who used to own the room, of words to use instead of ‘said’ when you’re writing dialogue. You know the deal: hissed, guffawed, shouted, cried, croaked etc. etc. Maybe you can hear the voice of your teacher now:

“Make sure you use varied vocabulary! Don’t use said all the time! Look at the list of alternatives!” (she exclaimed).

Let’s just pause a minute.

Pick up a book. Find some dialogue. How many times has the author used a word other than ‘said’ to tag their dialogue?

I’m betting not many. Because this is one area where teachers get it wrong (yes, I’m admitting it now – we get things wrong!). Most authors use ‘said’ for the majority of their tags. Why? Said is invisible – we don’t really process it when we read. It just becomes a helpful note as to who is speaking, meaning the dialogue flows smoothly and doesn’t trip over the extra information. If you feel you need some clarity, ‘replied’ or ‘asked’ are also fairly unobtrusive – and you may decide to use a more ‘creative’ tag once or twice for impact. But generally, ‘said’ will be the mainstay of your dialogue.

Of course, you don’t always need a tag. Changing up the structure of your speech can stop the page seeming repetitive. For example,

“Hey, listen, I don’t think we need to leave yet,” said Jake.

“I’m not so sure.” Penny rubbed her forehead. “I’ve got a headache.”

“Okay, okay. We’ll go now.”

In this short conversation, it’s clear when Jake and Penny are talking even though I haven’t used ‘___said’ every time. In Penny’s line, I’ve used ‘stage directions’ instead to give the reader a visual image to go along with the speech. These can be really useful to convey action and also give a hint as to who is speaking.

The other major pitfall is the use of adverbs to support the tag. For example,

“Get off me!” he said angrily.

If you find yourself adding adverbs after every dialogue tag, ask yourself whether they are really necessary. In my example above, the phrase itself suggests his anger, as good dialogue should. If we took out the adverb and added some stage directions (e.g. He pushed her roughly, or His voice was so loud it hurt her ears) it would make a much stronger and clearer line.

Dialogue is hard to get right. I should know – I hit every one of these newbie mistakes in my first novel and I still get sucked in every now and then by the lure of the adverb. But once you’re aware of these issues, you can start to craft dialogue that adds to, rather than distracting from, your story.

Further info:

 

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2 Responses to “Newbie Mistakes #2: Dialogue Tag, You’re It!”

  1. sagelikethespice January 21, 2013 at 11:36 pm #

    Yep, anytime there’s a variation on a dialogue tag, it draws attention to it. That’s fine if it’s an action (as presumably there’s a reason why the character is doing the action), but if all you’re doing is telling us who is speaking, then “said” is best.

    Interestingly, I recently started a novel that had strange punctuation for dialogue. There was a dash before the dialogue, but nothing afterwards, so that “said” was the hint that the person had stopped speaking. This drew attention back to the “said” and it was no longer invisible. It’s the same with the adjectives. They draw attention back to the tag instead of to the dialogue itself.

    • catherinequeenwrites January 22, 2013 at 10:03 pm #

      Yes, always takes me ages to adjust to reading weird speech punctuation. Thanks for reading and adding your thoughts 🙂

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