Apr 25 2011

How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively

Published by at 9:34 am under Dialogue

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).


7 responses so far

7 Responses to “How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively”

  1. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 26 Apr 2011 at 12:20 am

    Bahaha “ejaculated pizza”.

    I tend to have a lot of dialogue tags – I’m planning on getting rid of some of them later. When I write, it’s mostly tonnes of dialogue, then I go back through and add in what the speakers are doing as they talk. I use it as a frame or template to work from.

  2. […] How to Use Dialogue Tags Effectively […]

  3. Contra Gloveon 29 Apr 2011 at 8:38 pm

    B. Mac, did you actually see “ejaculated” used as a synonym for “said” at one point? If so, where?

  4. B. Macon 29 Apr 2011 at 10:33 pm

    I’ve never seen it in print myself, but I’ve heard horror stories.

  5. Torion 02 May 2011 at 3:55 pm

    Should you also use action-dialog-tags sparringly? Or are those okay? Because, while I try not too over-use dialog tags, to also sometimes use action to go along with the dialog if it adds to the scene. Could do a post about this? I’d like your opinion on it. I also try not to use the same thing in a row like:

    She stood. “I want pizza.”
    Mark smiled. “Get me a piece, too.”

    This is a crappy example, but in this situation, I’d likely ditch second action since it doesn’t add anything (unless Mark hates pizza, in which case smiling would be worth adding). Still, I can’t stand it when people have either action-dialog-tags or just the same type of dialog tag in the same posistion. Anyone else have this problem, or is it just me?

  6. B. Macon 02 May 2011 at 4:25 pm

    I think body language and other nonverbal actions are frequently quite helpful in dialogue. In addition to providing information that we wouldn’t otherwise have (like Mark’s emotional state), they can also help readers visualize what’s going on besides talking heads.

    I don’t think that the first character standing up contributes as much as Mark’s smile does. On the one hand, Mark’s smile doesn’t add a ton, but I think it helps establish that we aren’t supposed to interpret his request as demanding. If readers would otherwise be able to figure out who is saying “I want pizza,” I think mentioning that she stands up is probably unnecessary. It doesn’t really contribute to the dialogue as it is. One way you could rewrite the line so that it is more relevant would be to use her standing to accomplish some effect, like show something she’s trying to do. For example, if she’s trying to browbeat Mark into giving her pizza, instead of just having her stand up, maybe standing is part of her attempt to intimidate him. For example…

    She stood angrily, towering over Mark. ‘I demand satisfaction!’
    Mark waved a half-eaten piece of pizza at her and smiled. “Last slice.”

  7. Torion 02 May 2011 at 4:29 pm

    You’re right about the smile. 😀

    And your example made ME smille. lol! Thanks for the input; I’ll keep it in mind!

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