Exclaimed. Whispered. Interjected. Said. Shouted. Ejaculated.
These words have one thing [besides a similar tense] in common with one another.
They’re all dialogue tags. Each one - in stories - would follow, precede, or interrupt a snippet of dialogue. They are used to clarify who is speaking, and how they are speaking it. These little words are rare outside of books, but they’re some of the most useful little [or large] words in the history of words.
However, not all dialogue tags are created equal. They don’t all deserve the same rights, the same prominence in literature, nor the pursuit of happiness.
No, some dialogue tags are better than others. Some deserve to be on a lower plain of existence than others. And some… some just shouldn’t be used at all.
The Power of a Tag
Why use dialogue tags? Well, there are several reasons, but the simplest is for clarification:
“Not much, you?”
“I thought maybe we could hang out or something.”
Was that confusing, or was that confusing?
If I told you there were three people in that conversation, could you pick them out? Probably not. First, it’s rather vague and poor dialogue in the first place, but the problem also lies in the lack of tags:
“Hey there,” Judy said.
“What’s up?” Mark asked.
“No much,” she responded, “you?”
Mark shrugged. “I thought maybe we could hang out or something.”
Jane snickered. “Ew.”
Judy frowned, then she smiled and said, “Okay, sure.”
It’s still the lamest bit of dialogue ever, but it illustrates my point well enough: without dialogue tags, you’ll never know for certain which character says what.
Less is More
An interesting, little known fact about dialogue tags: they’re supposed to be invisible. Dialogue tags are only there to clarify who is speaking. If they become the point of themselves, they’re doing it wrong. See, we don’t use dialogue tags in real life. Because in real life, we can see who is speaking. We can tell by tone, inflection, and body language who is speaking what, and how. We see their mouths move, hear the words that result from the following vibrations in the air.
In stories, we don’t have the luxury of watching people’s mouths move. So instead, the author gives the reader a fleeting indication of who is saying what.
The power of the dialogue tag is its invisibility. I read a dialogue tag and move on, with the picture painted properly in my head of who is saying what. The thing is… I don’t care about the dialogue tag. If it wasn’t there, I’d be disgruntled and confused, but when it is there, I don’t care. It’s only purpose is to keep me from being confused.
Shorter dialogue tags are better. If you spend more than two words to say “Judy said”, you’re doing it wrong. There may be one or two exceptions, such as “Judy whispered hoarsely”, where your adverb is the only option to describe her voice as hoarse, but otherwise… two words is the key.
Some dialogue tags were created by English teachers to help their budding writers “spice up” their research papers and homework “stories”. These tags are – in essence – good for research papers and awful for real stories.
“Okay!” Sally ejaculated
“But what about this?” Mark expostulated.
“I don’t care,” Sally retorted.
Mark responded: “Yes you-“
“No I don’t!” Sally interjected.
The thing about fancy dialogue tags, they sound painful. I mean… what does expostulating look like? It sounds like a painful dismemberment.
The shorter the dialogue tag, the less your reader will notice, and the more your reader will enjoy your story. When the dialogue tag causes me to stop and go “what?” it’s the wrong tag. I don’t want to have to stop and dig through my brain for a definition to “ejaculated”. That’s not the point of dialogue tags.
Keep it short, keep it simple.
Contrary to what your English teachers have said in the past, the word “said” is okay. In fact, it is your best friend. You see, “said” is invisible. It is so well known to your readers that we won’t even read it, really. Instead, it will blend right into the name [or pronoun] that precedes or follows it. I will read “Mark said” as “Mark” and suddenly I know Mark is talking. It might not even register consciously that I know that. But I will, and that is the point.
The Power of Tag-less Tags
What if your dialogue tag wasn’t a tag at all?
These are the action tags, and are, in my opinion, the best kind. This is, quite simply, attaching an action to your dialogue:
“What is it?” Stephen poked the rock with a stick.
Barty shrugged. “Probably a rock.”
Sarah sighed and rolled her eyes. “It’s not a rock, it’s a dragon egg.”
“No it’s not,” Humphrey said, “it’s a large bug.”
“Or a rock.” Barty snorted and walked away.
Shortly thereafter, the rock hatched into a dragon-bug and the world ended. Er… that is to say, I only used one dialogue tag in that horrid little story, but at the same time, you know exactly who said what. There is no doubt who said what.
Instead of invisible words, I used actions to paint the scene and attach emotions to each piece of dialogue. Now you know not just who said what, but how they said it.
Dialogue tags are easy. Well, except the grammar. I don’t feel like explaining all the grammar surrounding them, so find the nearest fifth grade grammar book if you don’t know.
These little snippets of dialogue can make or break a scene, which makes them incredibly important.
Despite their invisibility.
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