Apr 25 2011
Dialogue tags are phrases like “he said” or “she joked” that let readers know which speaker is delivering a line.
1. If the dialogue tag isn’t necessary, remove it. Does the dialogue tag provide enough information to readers to justify spending 2+ words? I’ve read manuscripts with hundreds of unnecessary dialogue tags. Cutting back can free up pages for actual content.
- WASTE OF SPACE: “I’ll never leave you,” he promised. “I’ll never leave you” is obviously a promise, so “he promised” is unnecessary.
- HELPFUL: “You study three hours a day,” she accused. Without “she accused,” readers might misinterpret this as a compliment.
2. Make sure your tags fit the context of the sentence.
- WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he stated. “Stated” is far too formal to fit here. (It also connotes deliberation and authority/confidence, like someone delivering an official finding or report).
- RIGHT: “This man was murdered,” the coroner stated.
- SO VERY WRONG: “I want a pizza,” he ejaculated.
3. Please be sparing with exotic tags. They tend to be more distracting than basic words like “said.” Remember the ejaculated pizza above? I can guarantee that you paid more attention to the tag than the line of dialogue. Don’t distract your audience from what matters most, which is almost always the dialogue rather than the tag.
- RED FLAG: Fewer than half of the dialogue verbs in the manuscript are “said,” “asked” or “replied.”
4. If you’re not sure about how to punctuate dialogue, please check this out.
- “This shouldn’t look right”, said B. Mac. If you’re not 100% sure what’s wrong with that sentence, I’d recommend spending 5-10 minutes reading this. It’s more pleasant than spending hours scouring your manuscript for hundreds of misplaced punctuation marks or hiring a proofreader to do it. (I proofread novel manuscripts for 1 cent per word, so you could save $700 on a 70,000 word manuscript by acing this on your own).