How to effectively use dialogue tags in fiction

Here's why editors frown upon overly creative dialogue tags – and why you should, too.

How to effectively use dialogue tags in fiction. In this illustration, a diverse group of adults signify discussion with multi-colored speech bubbles hang over their head.

During a judging period for a recent short story contest, I started thinking a lot about dialogue tags in fiction. Because in many submissions, characters didn’t “say” a thing. They shouted, they stammered, they inquired, they posited. Some characters boasted and screamed while others murmured or mumbled. But no one “said” anything. And I started wondering why.

Why do we tell beginner writers to avoid creative dialogue tags in the first place? Why do we insist, over and over again, that characters should stick to “said,” “asked,” and the occasional “sighed?” And, if the advice is so oft-repeated, why are writers still unable to resist the siren call of a lament, bellow, screech, snap, or guffaw?

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Words are the only tool in an author’s arsenal. Why wouldn’t we reach for exciting verbs instead of meek-boring-bland-blah said?

The more I thought about it, the more I understood the temptation. We’re encouraged time and time again to use strong, actionable verbs in our prose. Why walk when you can gallop, skip, or saunter? Why cry when you can sob, wail, or weep?

Words are the only tool in an author’s arsenal. Why wouldn’t we reach for exciting verbs instead of meek-boring-bland-blah said? Why shouldn’t we want to embellish every word in our manuscript? Why couldn’t each verb be a tiny, sparkling gem in its own right?

The problem, I think, is that every jewel needs a setting to become something more than the sum of its parts. Without something to provide structure, some kind of framework, a collection of the world’s most glorious diamonds would still only amount to a heap of rocks.

And a dialogue tag should never, ever be the diamond in any given sentence.

Dialogue is your diamond, friends. When we read your work, your dialogue should be so bright, so sparkling, so lifelike, so wonderfully realistic that our brains “hear” each line instead of merely reading it. We don’t need to be told a character is shouting – we can sense it in the way they spit out words, clench fists, or storm from the room. We long to comfort a tearful character as she speaks each word; we don’t need to be informed that she “sobbed” or “wailed” a particular line.

A dialogue tag is a mere signpost along the narrative journey, gently indicating who said what. It’s part of a story’s experience, but it’s not part of the story itself, nor should it be treated as such. Dialogue tags are akin to lighting in a Broadway play: Without it, the audience would have no idea what was going on, but it usually strives to illuminate without calling too much attention to itself. (Aside from lighting professionals and true theater geeks, no one walks out of a production saying, “By Jove, the lighting in that play was extraordinary.”)

Creating a successful work of fiction is about giving the reader all the materials they need to build your fictional world in their mind and not a scrap more.

What’s more, just as no two actors will deliver a line of dialogue the exact same way, readers may not initially imagine a particular line being “wailed.” Perhaps we envisioned her whispering her anguished response through tears; perhaps we imagine her voice breaking as she struggles to get the words out. When we reach the end of a sentence and find out our leading lady has actually wailed instead of whispered, it pulls us right out of the story. We pause. We reread the line. We adjust our understanding of the scene, reposition our heroine in our mind, and begin again. But that wonderful momentum when we’re fully immersed in the scene, holding our breath to find out what our protagonist says next, is lost.

Creating a successful work of fiction is about giving the reader all the materials they need to build your fictional world in their mind and not a scrap more. Readers need crackling, believable dialogue. They need voices so compelling that they pop right off the page and into our ears. They need conversations that ripple, evolve, spark in the air. And if you’ve done all that, created dynamic characters who speak words we can really hear, you will never – not once! – need to tell us how something was said.

 

Nicki Porter is the editor of The Writer.

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