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Opinion: If You Need Fancy Dialogue Tags, There’s Something Wrong with Your Writing

Headshot of Jim with a pet dog

Jim Giammatteo, indie author of over 70 books, shares his best advice on writing dialogue

Dialogue tags are always a controversial topic among writers. While some like to ring the changes with a wide vocabulary, Giacomo Giammatteo, indie author of over 70 self-published books, makes the case for keeping dialogue tags simple, and explains his reasoning. See if you agree…

 

In an attempt to sound writerly or make it appear as if they are experienced authors, many writers use ridiculous dialogue tags when they shouldn’t.

What do I mean? The answer is simple.

I’m going to provide a list of acceptable tags (a list provided to students for reference), but it’s not a list I’d recommend using. (I looked through some published books and found every one of these, and it didn’t take me too long. I had to peruse about 18 books, but eventually I found them all.)

A side note here: many English teachers advise using some of, if not all of, the tags below. I don’t.

It’s a hotly debated issue, but in my opinion, if you feel the need to use a dialogue tag other than the basic, it means you haven’t worked hard enough to clarify things. You need to rewrite.

Also, for the sake of clarification. I will refer to name tags and descriptive tags in this post.

Name tags are what they sound like—when the writer uses a character’s name to let the readers know who is speaking.

Descriptive tags are when the writer uses an action either before or after the dialogue to clarify what a character is doing.

List of acceptable dialogue tags (according to the aforementioned teachers)
acknowledged admitted agreed answered argued
asked barked begged bellowed blustered
bragged complained confessed cried demanded
denied giggled hinted hissed howled
inquired interrupted laughed lied mumbled
muttered nagged pleaded promised questioned
remembered replied requested retorted roared
sang screamed screeched shouted sighed
snarled sobbed threatened wailed warned
whimpered whined whispered wondered yelled

Here’s The List I’d Recommend

Acceptable tags
said
asked
yelled or hollered

Why such a difference? Because the others are not needed, and, some say, make the work appear ridiculous. Let’s look at it.

image of people holding up speech bubbles to indicate dialogue tags

How many dialogue tags does a writer really need? Fewer than you might think… (Image by rawpixel via unsplash.com)

What Is A Dialogue Tag?

What is a dialogue tag for? What purpose does it serve?

A dialogue tag is typically used to let the readers know who is speaking, and what mood they’re in.

It’s tough work, and because of that, many writers rely on excessive dialogue tags (usually stemming from laziness), hoping that the tags will do the work for them.

An example can be seen in this, taken from a mystery book I recently read.

Get out of my house! Susan roared emphatically.

Name tag—There is a lot wrong with that sentence, starting with the fact that we didn’t need to know it was Susan who was speaking. From the context of the scene (not shown here), we knew it was Susan who was speaking.

Punctuation—Though exclamation points are not my favorites, and should be used sparsely, it would have been fine in that sentence; however, if the author kept the exclamation point, they didn’t need the rest.

Get out of my house! would have been sufficient, and, in fact, would have had more impact in my opinion. I already said we didn’t need to know Susan was speaking, and the use of the exclamation point would have sufficed as a tool to replace the *roared, and, emphatically.*

Readers don’t need to be told—with tags—that a character *laughed, cried, shuddered, sobbed, felt fear, or was ashamed, or experienced any other emotion.* They should know by the dialogue itself, or the actions of the characters while they speak.

Clarification

What do I mean?

Suppose you’re reading a book where the husband and wife are arguing, and you come to a scene where one of them turns to the other and says,

Grow up, she said, then slammed the door as she walked out.

By the grow up comment, we know she is accusing him of acting infantile. We know it’s her speaking by the use of she, and we know she’s pissed by the way she slammed the door, and then walked out.

We could have said, Grow up, Susan said, furiously.

But we didn’t need to use her name again, and if we use furiously, the reader is left to imagine what furiously is. In the first example, we’re providing them with the perfect example–the example we want of her slamming the door. It’s an image the reader can imagine and most likely empathize with. It’s one they’ve probably experienced. And nothing could be better than that. Give the readers examples that they can relate to.

Allow Readers To Experience Emotions

If I want to evoke an emotion—say fear or panic—I put the reader in a situation like a mother who loses her child at the beach or a park or a carnival. The picture below shows the panic of a lost child.

image of lost child crying

Make your reader empathize

Readers can then picture that woman looking around, eyes bulging, panicking, screaming the child’s name, heart racing, throat tightening. They can empathize with this because they have either experienced it themselves, or they know someone who has, or they’ve at least seen that kind of situation in a TV show or a movie.

On the lighter side of things. If you want a writing rule to follow. I know you’ve all heard the rule of show, don’t tell. This is no different.

When you use dialogue tags (especially adverbial ones), you are telling the readers how you want them to feel. It’s not much different than having a stagehand holding up signs during the performance of a play that have written on them in big, bold letters: It’s Time To Cry.

Yes, it’s that bad.

You don’t need to tell the readers that your character left the room slowly (or walked slowly down the hall), instead say, she tiptoed out of the bedroom, or she crept down the hall, or she climbed the stairs, one at-a-time, careful not to make them creak.

descriptive dialogue tags

Help the reader visualize the action

I’m willing to bet that at one point in their lives, every reader, or most of them, has tried going up a set of stairs without them making a sound. This is an action they can imagine, they can visualize. It will have a far greater impact on them then ‘went up the stairs slowly’. The same applies to tiptoeing and ‘walked down the hall slowly.’

I’m not crazy about dialogue tags in any sense, but I try to avoid adverbs like the plague. (How’s that for a cliché?)

How To Avoid Adverbial Dialogue Tags

I do my best to let the words speak for themselves. Picture yourself blind, and you’re sitting in a room with a group of people. You should be able to tell who’s talking by things other than sight:

  • cadence (easily applied by emphasizing when writing)
  • manner of speaking (long sentences, stutter, incomplete sentences?)
  • vocabulary (simple or complex)
  • use of contractions—or not
  • use and frequency of offensive language.

All of these, and more, make up a character’s voice personality ,and just like you could tell if it is your brother or someone else in the room next to you, your readers should be able to do the same with each of your characters—your main ones anyway. And just to mention—a character’s voice is not the same as the author’s voice. The author’s voice is shown mostly in the prose.

One Last Look At Dialogue Tags

Let’s examine that table of tags and look at them one-by-one to see which ones are useful.

Can you smile a saying, grin a response, giggle or bark a reply?

Instead of saying or telling a character interrupted someone, show it by using an em dash. Or make use of the ellipse to indicate missing words or a pause in thought.

Don’t tell your readers that someone mumbled, have the other character ask what they said, and then clarify by saying you were mumbling.

Examples Are As Follow:

Ted lowered his head as he turned his back to his mother. I’m going to the mall.

What did you say, young man? Speak clearly, and don’t try to hide what you’re doing. Mumble again when I ask a question, and you’ll go to your room. Understand? Was that clear enough?

If I were a reader, I’d understand what happened there, and it would be more interesting than saying he mumbled. I’ve had teenagers. I can relate.

Using replied or answered as a tag is ridiculous in my opinion. If the character is addressing the other person, then by definition they are replying or answering. We are aware of that as soon as they start talking so there is no need to tell us that the character replied or answered.

Using words like bragged or demanded are also redundancies. If you have a desire to say someone bragged then they obviously must have said something positive about the individual, so we can infer that they were bragging. The same thing with demanded. The dialogue will (or should) make it obvious.

Let The Dialogue Speak For Itself

The table listed above, and unfortunately, too many books, are loaded with examples of tags that are not needed. Try to remember that you almost never need a dialogue tag to explain your dialogue. Let the dialogue speak for itself.

Think about it another way. You don’t have a third party following you around explaining your dialogue and actions, do you? I hope not, because it would be ridiculous. Imagine the scene—you’re at the table and holler across the kitchen to your wife. What the hell’s for dinner? Then a third party shouts, he said impatiently, and with anger.

Trust me, your wife would know by your tone and your words, that you were impatient and angry, and you’d be fortunate if she didn’t hit you with a frying pan. But the point is, she didn’t need a third party to interpret for her.

So the next time one of your characters are tempted to laugh, or grin, or smile an answer—think again, and maybe just have them say it.

OVER TO YOU What is your preferred practice for dialogues? Do you have any pet hates or favorite gaffes to share? We’d love to hear them!

#Writers - let the #dialogue speak for itself, says @JimGiammatteo, and keep your dialogue tags to a minimum - read this memorable guest post for his top tips. #writing Click To Tweet

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11 Responses to Opinion: If You Need Fancy Dialogue Tags, There’s Something Wrong with Your Writing

  1. robert easterbrook January 20, 2019 at 1:22 am #

    I think the best response to prescriptivists is say FUCK OFF.

  2. Lionel January 19, 2019 at 3:55 pm #

    As a reader I rely on dialogue tags, because I mostly read fiction out loud to my wife.

    It is a great help too know who is speaking in a conversation – not that I attempt to play accents – as it helps to pace the the conversation. There is also a big difference between shouting, snarling or whispering “get out”.

    As long as the dialogue tag is placed early, the eye can jump ahead and anticipate. It becomes a bit stupid when the adverb appears at the end of a substantial speech – “sorry, that should have been whispered”

  3. Julie Day January 15, 2019 at 12:57 pm #

    I try not to use too many, mainly said, asked and replied. I feel that you can’t hiss words because you usually are clenching your teeth. You can always use a ! when you want to write that someone shouts, yells etc.

  4. Kassandra Lamb January 14, 2019 at 7:06 pm #

    In general, I agree that dialogue tags should be kept simple and to a minimum. Two points, though. One, too many lines of dialogue in a row without either action beats or a tag to make it EASY for the reader to tell who is talking can also pull the reader out of the story. If they have to figure out who is talking by the patterns of speech, that may very well break the spell.

    Two, I agree with Karen. There are times when a “demanded” or “barked” conveys the mood/emotions of the speaker quickly without breaking the tension of the scene with something longer and more elaborate.

    But my rule of thumb is no more than five such tags per 80,000 word novel.

    • Giacomo Giammatteo January 14, 2019 at 8:40 pm #

      Kassandra, I don’t believe anyone is proposing too many lines of dialog without tags. Only the type of tags were in question. Secondly, while I agree that the “very occasional” other tag is acceptable, demanded should be easily discerned by the dialog and context, and I have yet to hear a human “bark” an intelligible response. Unless the speaker is of the canine species, I’d suggest leaving “bark” out of consideration. I realize that “bark” can mean to speak in an angry tone, but again, that should be clear from the context.

      • Kassandra Lamb January 15, 2019 at 7:06 am #

        One commenter did suggest not using tags at all, which was what I was responding to. I should have clarified that.

        And sometimes the context doesn’t give it away, such as when a speaker’s mood suddenly changes. Say a couple is having a normal conversation and one party brings up a sore subject. Suddenly, the other spouse “barks” something out at them. Again, I only use these “special” tags when the scene is a tense one and I don’t want to break the tension with too much descriptive verbiage.

        Case in point, I have written several scenes involving domestic violence, scenes where everything is fine and then the husband snaps. Having him “bark” or “demand” something has more impact than “he said in a sharp voice.” And describing his body language first takes some of the surprise out of the startling verbal response. So the reader does not end up experiencing it as the wife does—a sudden shift that scares the bejesus out of her.

        In general, I agree with you about “fancy” tags. But as my grandmother liked to say, “Every rule has an exception, including this one.”

  5. Delia Pitts January 14, 2019 at 4:51 pm #

    Excellent essay. I agree all the words used to describe speech are clunkers. They clutter the page and block immediacy for the reader. The only time I use the word said is in a speech by a character: “I saw Tom yesterday and he said he’d bring the cash by noon today.”

  6. Karen Myers January 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm #

    There are many reasons to restrict dialogue tags.

    1) Excessive adverbial usage (laziness)

    2) Redundancy re: vivid actions

    3) Shorthand for physical action

    However, almost all “never do this…” advice has a tendency to suffer from absolutism.

    In my opinion, the best reason to use simple dialogue tags is transparency — never breaking the reader’s trance. And for the same reason, sometimes the best “workaround” is more clumsy than a simple adverb.

    Example: “But I really want you to stay,” she said, earnestly/slyly/abruptly/cautiously…

    Yes, these options can be distinguished by workaround phrasing and descriptions of facial expressions and descriptions of accompanying action in context, but sometimes “an adverb is just a word”, not something to be dismissed out of hand. They’re only a problem when they call attention to themselves, not when they’re the smoothest choice for keeping the reader engaged, and not when the alternative is a clumsy and lengthy description which breaks the rhythm and focus of the writing, just to avoid the use of the adverb.

    Sometimes avoiding the adverb is the old “up with which I will not put” non-solution to a simpler problem.

    • Giacomo Giammatteo January 14, 2019 at 8:32 pm #

      Karen: Thanks for the comment. First off, let me state that I don’t believe I said “never” but “almost never”. There is a difference. And while I don’t agree with “writing rules”, the rule-which you referred to with the “up with which I will not put” and the reason to not use adverbs or unnecessary adjectives in dialog tags are for different reasons, both of which can be fixed by simple rewriting in most cases. As to your examples, they could easily, and one might argue, more effectively, be written without the adverbial tags.

      “But I really want you to stay,” she said, earnestly/slyly/abruptly/cautiously…

      Instead of “earnestly”, write something like: She held his hand and looked into his eyes. “But I really want you to stay.”

      Instead of cautiously: She looked around the room to ensure no one was listening. “But I really want you to stay.”

      In both cases, it encourages the reader to picture the scene, thereby getting a better feel for it. (I think.)

      I’m not saying there is never a need for an adverbial tag, but there seldom is.

  7. JJ Toner January 14, 2019 at 4:32 pm #

    Very good article, Jim. I agree wholeheartedly. I could add a few more words to your list like: opined, explained, insisted, countered, proposed, contended, and my favourite: offered. I think shouted, whispered, barked, snapped and mumbled are okay, though, since they give a measure of volume, like yelled. Hollered is very American. And I would remove asked from your list. A question mark is all that’s needed when asking a question. I know at least one writer who never uses any speech attributions at all, not even said.

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