Dialogue Tags

When it comes to the mechanics of a novel, the thing that stands out most to me are the dialogue tags. In fact, when comparing books written by long-time “professional” authors and those new to the craft, the dialogue tags are probably where the greatest marks in improvement showcase themselves.

“How could you?” She narrowed her eyes, “You know what it meant to me.”

“I know,” he said, unable to meet her gaze.

“You said you wouldn’t!” She declared, angrily.

“I know!” He shouted, “It was a moment of weakness, I’m sorry,” he added, quiet.

“Look, look at what you did!” She scooped up the milk carton, the few traces left sloshing about, “You put it back, again!”

“It was 3am!” He retorted, this time able to steel himself and challenge her gaze.

“How am I going to eat my cereal now?!” She yelled.

The above is something I see often. Does it work? Sure. Do some people like this sort of style? Also sure. For me, however, adding tags to every single line gets old, especially if there’s a big chunk of dialogue. Many of the tags just wind up being superfluous, especially in conversations with two participants. The question here becomes, then, what is changed, what is cut or added. Though, the other caveat here is that this is still done in my particular method, which is still flawed as hell. Just something to remember.

So, then, how would I attempt to write it? Maybe like so:

She shot him a nasty look, jaw set and eyes narrowed. “How could you? You know what it meant to me.”

Unable to meet her gaze, he shifted in place, “I know.”

“You said you wouldn’t!”

“I know, damn it! It was a moment of weakness, okay? I’m sorry.”

“Look! Look at what you did!” She scooped up the milk carton, its precious few dribbles sloshing about, “You put it back, again!”

“It was 3am!”

She hurled the carton into the garbage, “How am I going to eat my cereal now?!”

Now then, is this different? A little. I suspect most people will read through the dialogue and associated actions a bit faster with greater flow. I also suspect that the readers have no trouble following who is saying what even though I didn’t use a single tag, well, technically. I also (hope) that most readers will find the second part to be, on the whole, better. If not, hey, feel free to tell me why I’m wrong. Really! I love having conversations on writing matters.

Anyways.

Tags are a curious part of a novel, both indispensable yet if they show up at the wrong time they can make for a bumpy ride. This is one of the reasons why, if you’ve googled the topic of dialogue tags before, you’ll find people talking about how you might want to minimize the usage of tags that aren’t “said.” Don’t even use “shouted” or “yelled” or so on. This is because “said” is so commonplace it becomes invisible. The reader will read it without reading it, but still process the information, such as who is saying what. Of course, if “said” doesn’t jive with what’s going on, then it becomes a rock in the stream again.

One thing I’m attempting to do is limit my usage of tags. Not eliminate them altogether, no, that’d just be silly, but replace them with showing actions instead. In this tiny scene with two actors, it’s easy because the pronouns tell us who is saying what. The dialogue is plainly back and forth, so even on lines in which no tags or actions occur, we know who is saying it. And, chances are, given what they’re saying and how they’re saying it, the reader doesn’t require any actions or tags to build a mental image of how they might be acting.

In a way, reducing one’s reliance on tags and actions also forces one to write dialogue that is clear in describing to the reader how the speaking is feeling, what they might be doing as they’re speaking. Maybe this is the true piece of differentiation between the new writer and the pro and I’ve got this whole thing backwards: That good dialogue precludes the need for tags in some circumstances.

Or maybe this conclusion was my intention all along. Ho ho.

Go back and read some of your favorite novels, your favorite dialogue passages and sections. Don’t just read the dialogue, study it. What about it makes you fizz?

Then attempt to emulate it with some random scenes, be it between characters who have snapped into existences solely for the exercise or using some of your existing members. Put them in strange scenarios. Have them interact and write it in a way that mirrors how your favorite author might have it.

Then, try to write it without using any tags at all. A few descriptions and action bits are fine, but try to have lines of dialogue stand tall and proud on their own. Once that’s done, go back and add in tags.

Read all three sections you’ve crafted and decide for yourself which is better. Chances are it won’t be the tagged section. In fact, for myself, some of my favorite sections have no descriptions or tags at all. Just strong, evocative back-and-forth dialogue. Lots of feeling, very emotional, and I’m kept soaring through it because there’s no tags or descriptions to get stuck on.

Of course, this isn’t something that’s practical to do in all scenes, but the better you get at not needing tags et al for your powerful scenes, the better you’ll be at learning how to control their usage in the scenes that aren’t exactly riveting but still necessary, nonetheless.

Something to think about it.

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