A Positive Take on Dialogue Tagging
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Today, we're going to join the great dialogue tag war once more. Why do this when I've already written the essential article on the topic? Mostly as a service to the audience.
A common complain about articles on writing advice is that many of them are just long lists of "don'ts," without any positive advice. Writing advice is negative for a reason - as I've said, there's no set of rules as to what constitutes good writing, and the magic is in the experimentation, but failures are predictable. On the other hand, I can also understand the plight of the new writer who never finds an answer to the question "What should I be doing here?"
So while I could continue to list off examples of bad dialogue tags, I'm going to take a more positive approach today. Rather than telling you what not to do, I'm going to give you a series of questions to ask yourself during the writing or editing process. Think of it as facilitation - I want to teach you how to find the answers yourself.
When looking at your own dialogue, ask yourself the following:
1. Do my tags clarify or obscure the text?
There aren't a lot of writing articles about readability - it's more of an editor's concern - but you can still take a role in making your own prose easy to read, and dialogue tags are good place to start. Dialogue tags are there to make conversations easier to follow, so ask yourself: Are my tags doing their first job?
Are my creative tags enhancing the dialogue, or might they be confusing to a reader? Is it still clear who's talking when I use action tags? In a long exchange, am I using enough tags and placing them properly? These are very mundane concerns, but they're worth taking into consideration - especially if you frequently use creative tags, but even if you exclusively use "said." Yes, an editor can fix this, but maybe you could give the editor a break.
2. If my dialogue is dull, is the problem the tags or the dialogue itself?
Lots of writers use creative tagging as a quick fix for boring dialogue. It can work, in the same way that a full cup of chili powder can spice up a bland recipe, but there are probably more elegant solutions that are more pleasant for the consumer.
So before reaching for the thesaurus, consider what you might do the dialogue proper. Do my characters have strong voices? If there's a lot of mundane establishing or expository text, can I cut any of it out? Can I add emotion or action to this scene, maybe up the stakes to add tension? And if little fixes don't work, then ask yourself: Do I need this exchange at all?
If your dialogue is bland, you'd be better served by fixing the underlying problems than trying to distract your reader.
3. Are any of my dialogue tags redundant?
The most common dialogue tags are those that describe how a person is speaking - shouted, whispered, muttered, whimpered, etc. These are defensible as a way to enhance dialogue by giving the reader additional information.
Then there are tags that don't describe the manner of someone's speech, but describe the dialogue itself. In essence, they recap what was just said and offer nothing new. While any dialogue tag can be redundant - you can guess that a very angry character is probably shouting without having to use that tag, for example - these recap tags are always redundant and don't enhance the text at all.
There are so many tags like this that there's no use in trying to find them all, so we'll replace another "don't" list with a question: Does this tag enhance my dialogue, or just recap it? A good way to figure this out is to temporarily move the tag in front of the dialogue, i.e. from "Stop!" shouted Dave to Dave shouted "Stop!" If this renders the dialogue moot, then it may be worth a second look.
The Big Question
I'd like to leave you with one general-purpose question that you should ask yourself whenever you make an idiosyncratic choice, or find an unusual pattern in your work:
Why? Why am I doing this?
If you're trying to write in second-person, dropping dense lore in the first paragraph of a novel, or looking for a unique tag for each line of dialogue, ask yourself: Why am I doing this? Does it suit my style and genre? Am I even comfortable writing like this?
You won't always have a clean answer but what does it mean if you don't have an answer at all?