Writing Dialogue Tags

First, what are dialogue tags?

A dialogue tag is: he said. she said. he asked. she asked. etc.

Lesson #1: Using–and the fear of over-using–the word said.

We, as authors, feel like ‘said’ is redundant and not creative. So, what do we do? We try and get creative and use words like mentioned, stated, claimed, exclaimed, commented… JUST USE SAID.

This is a big hurdle that ALL new writers face.

‘Said’ is not redundant… the word ‘said’ is INVISIBLE. The ONLY purpose it serves is to tell the reader who is talking. If you start using words other than said (more than VERY rarely) it become devastatingly distracting. Occasionally you can use words like whispered and muttered, but use them sparingly. You may also use ‘asked’ when your character is asking a question.

Lesson #2: Dialogue tags and adverbs.

What about… “he said lovingly” or “she said emphatically”? REPEAT AFTER ME: The road to Hell is paved with adverbs. – Stephen King.

The use of adverbs in conjunction with a dialogue tag is exactly what he’s talking about. Don’t do it. EVER. It is LAZY writing and the epitome of telling vs. showing.

Lesson #3: Non-speech words as dialogue tags.

This is really common. Never use non-speech words as dialogue tags. ie sighs, laughs, smirks, etc. A smirk is a sarcastic smile; you can’t smirk a sentence.

Move the action to the beginning of the dialogue and you don’t even need to use a dialogue tag:

He laughed. “I thought it was funny!”

Lesson #4: Mixing dialogue and action.

Don’t get into the habit of mixing dialogue tags with action as seen here:

“I need to go to the grocery store,” Elaine said as she picked up her keys, walked toward the door and opened it.

Read that sentence out loud and you will hear how heavy it sounds. Let action be action and dialogue be dialogue. Often, you don’t even need to use a dialogue tag if you have properly executed the action. This is a sign of truly great writing! Instead:

Elaine picked up her keys and walked to the door. “I need to go to the grocery store.”

Sometimes it is necessary to mix the two, but it shouldn’t be done out of habit. Again, it’s lazy writing. It should be reserved for when a character is speaking and doing something simultaneously–and sometimes not even then. 🙂

If you are a writer and you don’t already own it, PLEASE DO YOURSELF A FAVOR and get ‘ON WRITING’ by Stephen King.