Saturday, March 12, 2011


Dialogue Tags: demanded, sneered, said, and asked.

To tag or not to tag is the question of the day.

By now, most know what a dialogue tag is. For those of you who don’t, a dialogue tag is a clause of two or more words showing who is speaking.

Examples: Tim said. John asked.

Did you notice in my example I chose said and asked? My reason is in writing, they are considered invisible. Readers tend to not notice them—unless used too much.

Some writers don’t like to use only said and asked, they prefer to change it up, but is this wise?

Example: “Don’t drop the ball,” Tim laughed.

“Please come with me. I don’t want to go by myself,” Cynthia begged.

“You’re so cute,” Sandy smiled happily.

So, what is wrong with my examples? First, one can’t laugh dialogue. Try it, it doesn’t work. Same goes for smile. Second, they are telling. The writer—me—is telling you—the reader—how the dialogue was spoken.

Let’s use the same examples but show how the dialogue was spoken.

Tim doubled over, trying to hold back his laughter. “Don’t drop the ball.”

Cynthia gripped Carol’s hand. “Please come with me? I don’t want to go by myself.”

Sandy smiled and shuffled her feet. “You’re so cute.”

By using action beats, not only did I show more of the emotions, I did away with the dialogue tags. But like with dialogue tags, don’t overdo it with beats. Mix it up.

Here's an example of a scene with over used dialogue tags.

“Are you coming over to my house tonight?” Trevor asked.

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test,” Jason said.

“I told you to study for it,” Trevor muttered.

“I know, and I did . . . sort of,” Jason whispered.

Okay, so the dialogue tags in my example show how too many can stop the flow. Since there are only two speaking, let’s try without them. I will start the scene by using one.

“Are you coming to my house tonight?” Trevor asked Jason.

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test.”

“I told you to study for it.”

“I know, and I did . . . sort of.”

Hmmm, better, but it reads flat and boring. Let’s try adding action beats.

Trevor closed his locker and glanced at Jason. “Are you coming to my house tonight?”

“I’m not sure. My mom’s still pissed at me about the D I got on my science test.” Jason scrolled through the list of songs on his IPod.

Trevor sighed and slung the strap of his backpack over his shoulder. “I told you to study for it.”

“I did . . . sort of.”

In my example, I used beats to fill the scene out more. Also, rarely do people just stand there doing nothing while talking. Add some movement. I could have taken this one step further and added internal dialogue for the POV character—Trevor—but that is a lesson for another day.

What if you are writing a scene with more than two characters? The same rules apply; use a mixture of action beats with dialogue tags.

Example: Cynthia reached across the sticky cafĂ© table and grabbed Carol’s hands. “Please come with me? I don’t want to go by myself.”

“I can’t. I have plans,” Carol said.

Sarah took a sip of her coffee and then set it down. Her gaze remained glued to Carol’s face. “And what exactly are your plans? Care to share?”

Glancing away, Carol’s face turned red. “Not really.”

So to sum up, use dialogue tags sparingly, and try to stick with said or asked. They are

considered invisible. Use action beats to show who is speaking, to fill out a scene, and show how the dialogue is spoken without having to tell. IE: He said angrily. She said happily.

Remember, dialogue cannot be laughed, smiled, or begged. Use a mixture of tags and beats when more than two are speaking.


Martha Ramirez said...

Very good, Brenda! Very true. I think this is one of a novice writer's biggest mistake.

Brenda said...

Yes. I use to be queen of dialogue tags when I first started out. Through the course I took and through crits, I learned about beats and how to use them to get rid of some dialogue tags.

Sheri Fredricks said...

Hi Brenda~ What an awesome post. Explaining the whys, whens, and hows of D-tags isn't easy but you made it very clear here. Easy to understand. Thank you and showing how actions & movement increase the scene and help the writer draw a mental picture.

Brenda said...

Thanks, Sheri. I'm so glad you liked my post.
I'm the type of reader who likes to know what the characters are doing while they are yapping. What I find is I get so much info from what the characters are doing while they are talking.