Write Right: Dialogue Tags

I’ve been an editor for eight years now, and I’ve noticed that one of the hallmarks of a newer, inexperienced writer is “fancy” dialogue tags.

For some reason, many newer writers feel the need to spice up their tags. Maybe it’s that their creative writing instructors told them that said is too boring or that they should try to be original or shouldn’t repeat themselves.

Whatever the reason, I often feel like these authors go to the thesaurus, look up said, and then pepper their writing with all kinds of fancy tags like postulated, posed, discussed, shared, announced, declared, avouched, promulgated, and other ten-cent words.

Nothing makes an editor or a reader cringe more than this. Why? Because fancy tags are just that—fancy. They call attention to themselves. And thus, they detract from your dialogue.

 

For example:

“That’s Matt over there,” Joe announced.

“Oh, I know Matt,” Sally shared.

“Let’s go say hi,” Joe stated.

“No!” Sally admonished.

 

It’s awkward in the extreme, overwrought, and it shows a lack of sophistication in your writing. In short, it screams to your reader that you are an amateur.

The fact of the matter is that said is really the best bet. Said melts into the background and isn’t obtrusive. It doesn’t call attention to itself. It lets your dialogue have the spotlight.

But because writing is a complex art, using said exclusively isn’t the answer either. In fact, you can see that repeating said here would also be awkward.

 

“That’s Matt over there,” Joe said.

“Oh, I know Matt,” Sally said.

“Let’s go say hi,” Joe said.

“No!” Sally said.

 

So now what?

Now we use said in combination with what is called a dialogue beat—an action attributed to a specific character.

 

“That’s Matt over there,” Joe said.

“Oh, I know Matt,” Sally said.

“Let’s go say hi.” Joe took her arm and steered her toward Matt.

Sally jerked away. “No!”

 

See how the beats actually illuminate the character and the story? Here, we can tell that Sally is upset by what’s happening. Also, the saids here melt into the background. They leave the reader’s focus on the dialogue and action, not on a fancy tag.

As with any technique, using dialogue beats vs. tags is more art than science. A good trick is to read your work aloud to see if it flows well and sounds natural.

As always, thank you for reading!

~GIE

 

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