Wednesday evening, 25°F and cloudy
Listening to The Nice, War & Peace
Please, fiction authors. I am begging you. Learn how to properly use dialogue tags. It’s not that hard, I promise. The bad dialogue tags in self-published fiction make my eyeballs spurt blood. I’ll be covering several varieties of bad dialogue tags and what you can do to fix them. If you’re not sure how to properly tag dialogue, keep reading. If you think you’re sure but are using dialogue tags other than said or asked more than once every 5,000 words, keep reading.
Said and asked are your dialogue tag MVPs
You could write a 150,000-word novel using no dialogue tags other than these. It doesn’t mean you have to, but they should make up the majority of your dialogue tags (not including properly used action tags or “beats”). Said and asked are your go-to tags because they are practically invisible.
Unless you’re writing middle-grade fiction (aimed at children), avoid long lists of “alternative” dialogue tags–I don’t care what your creative writing teacher told you. Those lists are compiled by the devil to make your writing suck. Just say no to characters constantly grunting, groaning, murmuring and muttering words, and ly adverbs that render your dialogue into Tom Swifties.
The dialogue itself, the characters speaking it, the surrounding action and the overall context should provide the nuance of how things are said. Well-written dialogue can stand on its own two feet. Explanatory or descriptive dialogue tags are a crutch, and the more you avoid them the stronger your skills at writing sparkling dialogue will become.
Descriptive dialogue tags get a pass for middle-grade fiction because early readers may lack the background and experience to pick up on nuance. If you’re writing fiction for anyone older than 13, avoid descriptive tags.
If you’re now using descriptive dialogue tags, replace them with said or asked, then strengthen the dialogue and surrounding action, context or narrative to carry the line. Or learn to properly use action tags. Good fiction will use a blend of both.
Beats: Careful with those action tags
“Sure you will, so you can get away with murder,” Bill spat at him.*
Action tags or “beats” are great in theory, but they get misused an awful lot. It’s really hard to spit, laugh, growl, sigh, or groan words. Seriously. You might spit a little while you’re talking, but you can’t spit words. Try it. Work up a nice loogy and try to spit some words. See? What an unsightly mess. Now go wash your face. Please growl some words, and then sob a sentence or two. Maybe you can do it, but it sounds like terrible acting. Assuming you’re writing fiction geared for grown-ups, this probably isn’t how you want to portray your characters.
At best, a tag like spat is redundant. At worst, the dialogue itself is too weak and needs to be propped up by a descriptive tag. Had Bill literally spat at his dialogue partner, the proper punctuation would have been “Sure you will, so you can get away with murder.” Bill spat at him. Note how the new sentence separates the speaking from the spitting.
Or even better:
“Sure you will, so you can get away with murder,” Bill said.
I wiped his spittle droplets from my face.
Bill may speak, Bill may spit, and Bill may even do both at the same time, but spat is not a proper dialogue tag.
Neither is face making.
“You’re engaged?” he frowned.
Frown, sneer, smile and scowl are not dialogue tags. They’re just faces, and rather stock faces at that. Like spitting, one can make these faces while speaking but it’s an amateur’s mistake to use them as dialogue tags.
Correct (but still pretty stock, action-wise): “You’re engaged?” He frowned. Note how we don’t need to add “he asked” after the question mark. It would be redundant with the action tag (frowned) indicating who the speaker is.
Keep the Chihuahuas out of the cocaine
Action tags can be terrific, but take care not to overuse them. You know you’re overdoing it if each time a character speaks, she also makes a face, moves her eyeballs around, shifts in her seat, or makes some other minor twitch or movement that doesn’t change anything. A little movement now and then is natural and good, but too much of this over a long stretch of dialogue will make the characters seem like Chihuahuas who got into the author’s cocaine stash.
Punctuate beats or action tags correctly
“Here’s to getting a better insurance policy,” I raised my tequila bottle to return his toast.
The proper way to do it is “Line of dialogue.” A bit of action. (not “Line of dialogue,” bit of action). There should a full stop (not a comma!) inside the quotation mark, then the tagging action begins a new sentence, complete with capitalization. The same is true whether the dialogue ends with a period, question mark, or exclamation point.
Department of Redundancy Department
“Here’s to getting a better insurance policy,” I said, raising my tequila bottle to return his toast.
When tagging with action (a.k.a beats), remove any redundant speech tags: “Here’s to getting a better insurance policy.” I raised my tequila bottle. The action adequately tags the speech, making the “I said,” redundant.
“Um, sure,” I shrugged,“I guess I don’t mind.”
This one is wrong because you can’t shrug words, and redundant because “Um, sure. I guess I don’t mind” is rather a shrug of a statement anyway. It’s overkill to have the character shrugging as he says this. (If the writer was heart set on keeping that redundant shrug, the proper way to punctuate this would be “Um, sure.” I shrugged. “I guess I don’t mind.”)
Try to make sense
“Did you know that my spouse died?” I twirled my glass.
Um, what? You say you twirled your glass? Like, on the tip of your finger? Or did you mean you swirled your beverage with a stir stick? Or your pinky? Or some other bodily appendage? Because twirling your glass, especially in a scene where you’re discussing the death of a spouse is just, yeah, that’s weird. Why would you be performing an awkward parlor stunt during a serious conversation?
Action tags are lovely as long as the action makes sense, and fits with the characterization and the story. You’re always going to be better off with a simple said or asked instead of a nonsensical action that will leave your reader scratching her head.
Avoid cramming names into dialogue
“Lynette!” Raleigh swung me around to check on me. I think my leg was broken.
“Lynette,” Raleigh said. “Are you OK?” he lifted me out of the mud.
I touched his beard, “I’m fine Raleigh, My leg might be broken, but … oh poop, Raleigh,” The pain was suddenly overwhelming.
“Lynette, you idiot.” He slung me over his shoulder and hauled me away.
Your’e not getting away with this, so don’t bother trying. Don’t have your characters using each other’s names constantly in place of dialogue tags. Your reader will see right through this because nothing sounds as fake or forced. People really don’t address each other by name all that often. It makes for very unnatural dialogue. Besides, it sounds melodramatic. Look how much fun the Internet has had at the expense of Rose and Jack.
Speaking of melodrama … don’t have your characters screaming, shouting, crying and yelling all the time. A couple of exclamation points should be enough for one novel.
If you’re wondering how I tag dialogue, check out my novel, State of Love & Trust.
*All examples in blockquotes are based on real self-published fiction. The quotes were altered slightly to avoid copyright issues.
CC0 Public Domain image by Melanie Schwolert via Pixabay