Wednesday, October 16, 2013

How to Write Dialog Tags

Greetings all, this is John here, excited to write about a subject which fascinates me and should fascinate you if you want effective dialog.

Dialog or Dialogue?

First things first. How is dialog(ue) spelled? It depends who you ask. Some say that the difference between spellings is caused by the difference between British English and American English. Some say “dialog” is always wrong, unless you’re referencing a dialog box on your computer.

My personal preference is “dialog,” and that’s how I’ll spell it in this article. But, no matter which way you spell it, dialog means conversation between individuals. It’s the words that come from your characters’ mouths.

What Is a Dialog Tag?

He said. She said. The man inquired.

Unless your audience reads minds, they’ll need a little tip from you as to who is speaking when. A dialog tag is that tip. It can also be your way of telling the reader how the words were said.

In the following three examples, the sections in bold are dialog tags.

“I want it now,” Frank asked.

“I want it now,” Frank pleaded.

“I want it now,” Frank snarled, jerking his thumb at the Tabasco sauce.

I actually break “dialog tags” into two categories: speech tags and action tags. A speech tag simply indicates who said what. For example:

“I want it now,” Frank whispered.

An action tag doesn’t specifically say that your character said anything, but it indicates it by the action your character performs. For example:

“I want it now.” Frank jerked his thumb at the bottle.

Both options communicate that Frank said the words. For the purpose of this article, I’m going to call both speech tags and actions tags “dialog tags.”

Your dialog tag may dictate whether Frank is a jerk or a gentleman, so choose carefully. Better yet, let your dialog speak for itself — but I’ll say more about that later.

Synonyms for Said

At this point you may be wondering “how many different ways can I say ‘said’?” After all, we don’t want our vocabulary to be over-repetitive, right?

Wrong.

Contrary to popular opinion and the many lists of synonyms for said, one of the best ways to draw your reader out of your story is to show off your vocabulary in dialog tags. Shakespeare is allowed to “quoth,” but if he tried writing today under a pseudonym I don’t think he’d get very far.

The reading brain is attuned to the word “said.” It taps a little gear in our heads and the story keeps cranking on without a pause. But when we see a character chattering, barking, quipping, or blurting, that gear gets a little jolt. It takes a millisecond to compute that word. And each time that happens, it’s a tiny jolt out of the storyworld.

Of course, there are exceptions. Sometimes you need to communicate that a promise of everlasting fidelity was whispered. But even there, you can probably let your dialog speak for itself.

You Can’t Elbow Words

Another common writing mistake with dialog tags is making your characters do impossible things. I’ve seen a person nod his head, but I’ve never seen one nod a word. Elbows can be great reminders when somebody’s about to spill a secret, but it’s hard to deliver a speech with one. I challenge you to go to a mirror and “frown” a word. Wait — finish reading this article first, then try. You may be at your mirror for a while.

All that to say, not all verbs are related to speech.

Incorrect:

Give me the sauce or else,” Frank frowned.

Correct:

Give me the sauce or else,” Frank said, frowning.

Give me the sauce or else.” Frank frowned. (Notice that period after the dialog. That separates the sentences and makes Frank frowned into an action tag, which works.)

It’s an easy concept to master. Next time you write a dialog tag just picture your character speaking. If you can create someone who can elbow a word, let me know. I’d love to meet him.

Caveat: I haven’t always been a faithful practitioner of these two rules. Each book I write is a learning experience. Semper reformanda.

Let Your Dialog Speak for Itself

Dialog tags are necessary, but if you need to dot your pages with “said quickly” and “asked angrily” you may well have one of two problems.

Problem 1: Your dialog is weak.

Dialog which needs constant explanation is a problem. Your characters need to be able to communicate their anger, or joy, or timidity, through their word selection and sentence construction.

Problem 2: You have too many characters in your scenes.

When two people are talking you can often forgo dialog tags for lines at a time because the back and forth makes it clear who is saying what. Add a third person to the conversation and no matter how strong your characters’ dialog is, you need to tell your reader which person is speaking. If you have twelve angry men on a jury, have fun. You can often create more powerful scenes by limiting the number of characters in each scene.

Speaking of Speaking . . .

That’s enough of me talking about talking. There’s still much to the world of dialog tags which I haven’t explored, so I may have more to say in the future. Now it’s your turn. Go write some cutting dialog, tag it right, and have fun!

What do you think about dialog tags? Any questions? Leave a comment!

5 comments:

  1. This is great! I'd heard before that it doesn't matter if "said" gets repetitious, we just want to keep our readers engaged!! :) You did answer one of my questions I've had for a long time and that is the whole comma versus period at the end of a quote. Thanks! :)

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  2. Excellent and informative post, Mr. Horn! Thank you for posting. I'm thinking I'll be tucking this one away to keep as a reference in case I ever need a few suggestions. :-)

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  3. Very good, John! Thanks for the post. I also think the use of describing dialogue changes per genre. Chick-flick might be continuous flow, with little "he said"/"she said", but historical-fiction will probably have more description of the manner in which the character was speaking . I am enjoying Brothers at Arms.

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  4. Excellent post! I'm going to show my kids. :)

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  5. Anna: I'm glad I helped clear up some of your confusion about commas vs. periods. It's amazing what a difference the presence or absence of a tiny squiggle beneath a dot makes. I suppose that's one of the beauties of language.

    Sarah and Maellen: I'm glad you found the post helpful!

    Alicia: Yes, I agree that there will be some variation between genres. Of course, every author's style differs, but I personally think that historical fiction should be vary sparing with any tags other than "he said/she said" and action tags. I've tried to make my dialog tags leaner with each book I write. I'm glad you're enjoying Brothers at Arms!

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