Dialogue Tags: The Bad, the Visible, the Audible, and the Absent

Dialogue should bring your characters to life. We all know that. It should contain and express their unique voices! It should be witty or profound or surprising or interesting or in some way effective! Right? Just serviceable dialogue is not good enough. Dialogue must not be boring or stilted or too predictable, and it should not make your character sound like Mr. Spock, unless, of course, he is Mr. Spock. Above all, dialogue should avoid silly or incompetent use of dialogue tags.

I mean, we all know perfectly well how a bad writer sometimes handles dialogue tags. Like this:

“You can’t mean it,” she exclaimed.
“I assure you, I mean every word,” he smirked.
“Oh, you’re too, too cruel,” she moaned.
“You better believe it, babe,” he sneered.

I’ve actually seen fanfic written like this, so don’t think it never happens. But of course most writers understand that “said” is invisible and most other dialogue tags are visible, right?

Which, actually, is a bit of an overstatement. The fact is, as I recently noticed while listening to an audiobook, “said” is often but not always invisible. In a minute I’m going to provide several examples of dialogue and take a look at what makes “said” pop out of the sentence almost as much as the tags above, and what techniques writers can use to keep that from happening.

But first! Let me add that actually quite a few other dialogue tags are nearly invisible if used effectively and in moderation. I don’t think everybody acknowledges this, though it is obvious.

Some other tags that generally work include: “shouted”, “whispered”, “protested,” “murmured”, “muttered”, and “answered.” But this is certainly not an exhaustive list. Opening up my current WIP, I see that in the first conversation, I use “inquired”, “observed”, “conceded”, “added,” and “repeated” as well as “said” – I only use “said” a couple of times. This is all within two or three pages, yet (I would argue) none of these tags stands out or catches the reader’s eye.

I really do want to emphasize this: if used smoothly and correctly and in moderation, lots of tags besides “said” sound just fine, barely draw the reader’s notice, and in fact add to rather than detract from your dialogue. To use them properly, of course, you need to have your character shout only when she ought to shout, and so on. And it’s certainly true that you don’t want to tag too many lines with any of these. But go actually look at what kinds of dialogue tags are used by really good writers such as Patricia McKillip and you will find plenty of variation, far more than you might expect given the popular advice to avoid tags other than “said.” You definitely don’t want to surrender your artistic judgment to some simplistic rule – even a rule that is cited everywhere as though it was handed down on a stone tablet from God.

And, hey, while on the subject of overstated advice, how about adverbs? I mean, how often have we seen advice to cut all adverbs from dialogue tags? That’s going a little far, too. Of course you don’t want this:

“I really must get my husband to a doctor at once,” she said urgently.
“Don’t worry,” he assured her heartily. “There’s a hospital less than half a mile away.”
“Oh, that’s wonderful!” she exclaimed thankfully. “Can you help me get him into that taxi?”

But if you open any novel by Patricia McKillip, you will see that she sometimes uses adverbs in dialogue tags. If she does, then clearly it’s okay! So that no-adverb rule is better conceptualized as “Don’t use too many adverbs in dialogue tags, and never when the adverb is redundant.” Lots of times it is perfectly clear from the context that your character is worried or in a hurry or awkward or whatever, and if it’s perfectly clear, then you don’t need to have her say something worriedly or hurriedly or awkwardly. Or rather than “said quietly” maybe you should be saying “whispered”? Because you don’t want to use an adverb merely as a substitute for the actual right word.

But it’s important to understand that neither “murmured” nor “whispered” nor “muttered” mean the same thing as, for example, “said gently.” The first sounds quiet, the second tentative or secretive, the third embarrassed. Only the adverbial tag sounds kind. Sometimes you really do need to say “said gently” and no other construction will do. It’s important to have enough of a feel for language to know when that is, and be confident enough to ignore overstated advice.

Now, back to use of the ordinary “said” tag. Look at this tiny sample of dialogue, from Scalzi’s REDSHIRTS, which I just listened to. And it was really good, btw – an excellent choice for audio format. But look at this:

“I was promised a long story,” Duvall said, after they had gotten their food and drinks.
“I made no such promise,” Dahl said.
“The promise was implied,” Duvall protested. “And besides, I bought you a drink. I own you. Entertain me, Ensign Dahl.”
“All right, fine,” Dahl said. “I entered the Academy late because for three years I was a seminary student.”
“Okay, that’s moderately interesting,” Duvall said.
“On Forshan,” Dahl said.
“Okay, that’s intensely interesting,” Duvall said.

Notice something? Every single line is tagged and in all but one case, the tag is “said.” Besides that, in all but one line, the dialogue comes first and the tag afterward – the sentence pattern is nearly always the same. Of course I selected this tidbit on purpose to illustrate a point, but I promise you that the overall feeling you get, given Scalzi’s writing style in this book, is that every single line is tagged with “said.”

I wonder how many readers actually start to notice all those “he said, she said” tags? When you’re reading, I wonder if you don’t just skim over this dialogue so fast you really don’t notice the tags? But I can tell you, when you’re listening to this in audio format, those tags sure catch your ear. They don’t sound exactly silly, but they start to pick up a fingernails-on-a-chalkboard quality.

Then you get used to it and the dialogue tags stop being so annoying, and I actually did find this story highly entertaining, and honestly it is an excellent choice for a short drive (the whole thing is six cds, but that includes three short stories; the main story is only four cds long).

But listening to this story made me really notice dialogue tags, which is exactly what the use of “said” is supposed to avoid. Compare the above sample to this, which you may recognize as a bit of dialogue from NINE PRINCES IN AMBER by Zelazny:

Just as she neared, I sat up.
“Good evening,” I said.
“Why – good evening,” she replied.
“When do I check out?” I asked.
“I’ll have to ask Doctor.”
“Do so,” I said.
“Please roll up your sleeve.”
“No, thanks.”
“I have to give you an injection.”
“No, you don’t. I don’t need it.”
“I’m afraid that’s for Doctor to say.”
“Then send him around and let him say it. But in the meantime, I will not permit it.”
“I’m afraid I have my orders.”
“So did Eichmann, and look what happened to him.” And I shook my head slowly.

Out of fourteen lines of dialogue, only four are tagged. Using so few tags could lead to confusion, but in this case it doesn’t, because it’s perfectly clear from context which character is saying what. Only one tag is “said”. Neither “replied” nor “asked” stands out or sounds the least bit stupid. The fourth tag is, of course, a movement tag, which is an excellent way of tagging a line without using “said” or any substitute.

You know who really does a great job with movement tags? Sarah Addison Allen. Check this out – it’s from THE GIRL WHO CHASED THE MOON, which I’ve decided is my favorite of her books:

“You’ll never guess what Stella told me last night,” Sawyer said, strolling into the kitchen just as Julia was finishing the apple stack cake she was going to take to Vance Shelby’s granddaughter.
Julia closed her eyes for a moment. Stella must have called him the moment Julia left her last night.
Sawyer stopped next to her at the stainless steel table and stood close. He was like crisp, fresh air. He was self-possessed and proud, but everyone forgave him because charm sparkled around him like sunlight. [ . . . ]
“You’re not supposed to be back here,” she said as she put the last layer of cake on top of the dried-apple-and-spice filling.
“Report me to the owner.” He pushed some of her hair behind her left ear, his fingers lingering on the thin pink streak she still dyed in her hair there. “Don’t you want to know what Stella told me last night?”
She jerked her head away from his hand as she put the last of the apple and spice filling on top of the cake, leaving the sides bare. “Stella was drunk last night.”
“She said you told her that you bake cakes because of me.”
Julia had known it was coming, but she stilled anyway, the icing spatula stopping mid-stroke. She quickly resumed spreading the filling, hoping he hadn’t noticed. “She thinks you have low self-esteem. She’s trying to build up your ego.”
He lifted one eyebrow in that insolent way of his. “I’ve been accused of many things, but low self-esteem is not one of them.”
“It must be hard to be so beautiful.”
“It’s hell. Did you really say that to her?”
She clanged the spatula into the empty bowl the filling had been in, then took both to the sink. “I don’t remember. I was drunk, too.”
“You never get drunk,” he said.
“You don’t know me well enough to make blanket statements like ‘You never get drunk.’” It felt good to say that. Eighteen years she’d been away. Look how much I’ve improved, she wanted to say.

See that? Not just movement tags, but thought tags. We are carried straight into Julia’s point of view here, and her thoughts and reactions substitute for dialogue tags several times just in this little snippet. In fourteen exchanges, there are only three actual dialogue tags. But there are only three completely untagged lines. Movement and thought tags accompany the remaining lines of dialogue, keeping us completely, effortlessly aware of exactly who is saying what – there’s no possible way to get confused. Allen manages this even in a quite long scene with a lot of different characters, which, believe me, is a tricky kind of scene to write.

Let me just add that Allen also works a lot more description into her dialogue than either Scalzi or Zelazny, often with very beautiful unexpected metaphors and analogies worked in, like charm sparkling like sunlight and, oh, lots of examples – read the book.

Now, where does Allen stand on the adverb question? Let’s take a look:

“I’m sorry,” she immediately said. “I didn’t mean to –”

“Win, you know my brother would be alive today if it weren’t for her mother,” Morgan said tightly.

“No one in town has ever said a word about that night,” Win said calmly.

“Like I said, I didn’t know her well,” Julia said carefully.

These kinds of tags are not that rare in Allen’s writing; it took me no time to find a good handful of examples. And in every single case, the adverb makes the dialogue more effective. It really does. That “calmly,” given the context, conveys Win’s self-possession, which is his central characteristic. Saying “carefully” in that last line – it’s one more way of signaling the reader that there is a secret Julia is trying not to give away. All these adverbs do something, they’re important, and no, the feel they add to the story could not be conveyed just via the spoken words of dialogue.

So . . . to sum up, my advice is: be aware of the common advice to minimize adverbs and also be aware of why adverbs are considered to detract from dialogue, but do not write off the use of adverbs in dialogue until you’ve studied how authors like Patricia McKillip and Sarah Addison Allen write dialogue. And that goes double for dialogue tags in general: pay attention to how skilled writers handle dialogue tags, and don’t take simplistic advice like “only use ‘said’” or “avoid dialogue tags” too seriously. No simplistic rules can ever substitute for your very own feel for the language.

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5 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags: The Bad, the Visible, the Audible, and the Absent”

  1. I’ve always worried about overusing adverbs, but you’re right: used well, they often add more to dialogue than they detract. I’ve always preferred writers who use a variety of dialogue tags, and I’ve tried to incorporate that variety in my own writing. (Movement tags are some of my favorite: description, action, and dialogue for the price of one!)

    Thanks for this post. I’ve got a few friends I need to show it to!

  2. I remember clearly how I learned about movement tags: I was worried about tagging dialogue and I didn’t think I was doing it right, so I opened up a book by . . . Lois McMaster Bujold. There you go, a great example of another author who uses movement tags really well. I learned so much from reading little tiny bits of Bujold and McKillip and other really good writers so I could see how they handled specific things. Looking at actual examples of good writing is an excellent antidote to simplistic advice.

  3. Hi Rachel,

    I just blogged about this (and took the liberty of linking to this post!)

    As you say, in an audiobook, the listener can hear the narrator’s different voice characterizations. All of the “said”s break up the flow of the dialog.

    I’m working on my first audiobook, and didn’t know about any of this until after my producer had done a good amount of recording. She is now going back through the recordings and removing the superfluous dialog tags. This is beyond the call of duty, and I am extremely grateful!

    For my next audiobook, I’m considering striking out the superfluous dialog tags–the ones that the narrator needs so that she knows who’s talking, but that the listener might not want to hear.

  4. Hi, Frankie — thanks for linking to my post. I’ve since heard someone else say exactly the same thing about Scalzi’s book, so apparently those tags really are obtrusive. I’m sure it’s a very fine line between not letting your reader get lost and not letting the tags get repetitive and boring. I’m impressed with your producer, because wow, that is above and beyond!

  5. Laura Gonzenbach wrote to her publisher that she could not exactly give the fairy tales in the words of her informants. Some of them would indicate speakers in dialogue by changing the voice used. Perhaps audio books need different uses than text.

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