Editing Tip #83: Get Your Dialogue Tags Working for You

He said, she screamed, they laughed, we cried, everyone gasped… These are some of the more useful Data Miningdialogue tags available.

The staple, of course, will always be: he/she said.

Generally speaking (pun intended), new and inexperienced writers tend to overdo dialogue tags in two ways:

1) Using too many descriptors

2) Using too many tags

The best way to get your dialogue tags working for you in the body of your text is to make sure they’re almost invisible.

Using Too Many Descriptors

He growled menacingly.

She exclaimed with joy.

He guardedly murmured.

She whispered softly.

The adverbs (-ly words) and additional descriptions (with joy) are not necessary. We are taught to write like this in public/elementary school and early high school because our vocabulary isn’t as broad as it should be by the time we’re in our late teens and on into our twenties, thirties, etc. Therefore, when we’re younger we need the help of these words to paint a more detailed picture. However, when honing your craft you need to see if there’s a better verb you can use other than the one that clearly needs the help of the adverb. In most cases, the adverb isn’t helping just restating what we already know.

A growl usually is menacing, it’s when it isn’t that we should make note of it.

We murmur because we’re being guarded with who might hear us.

A whisper by definition is soft and only when it isn’t should we draw attention to the fact.

Also, even if you cull the above tags down to their ultimate essence for brevity and clarity you still shouldn’t be using that many different kinds of dialogue descriptors in anything less than a page of dialogue… and that will have to be some phenomenal conversation to evoke all of that description.

Most of the time you should still just write “said” and that’s it. The tone of the conversation, what is being said, and how the characters are behaving during that conversation should be doing the work for you… you should be “showing” the reader what’s going on and not “telling” them.

Using Too Many Tags

“Don’t do that,” Jim said.

“I can do what I want. So back off,” Mary warned.

“I’m not going to let you ruin your life,” he said.

“What I do with my life is none of your concern,” she said.

Once you set up which two people are talking (you will need to use more tags when more than two people are in conversation), you no longer need to tag the dialogue. If the dialogue goes on for longer than half a page, then you should toss in a couple more tags just to keep clear that the conversation is maintaining the initial pattern you started with.

Therefore the above should really read as:

“Don’t do that,” Jim said.

“I can do what I want. So back off,” Mary warned.

“I’m not going to let you ruin your life.”

“What I do with my life is none of your concern.”

Their words already carry the weight of their intent, so you don’t have to describe how something is being said. The reader should have a sense of each character’s position on the matter and be able to infer inflection from the learned understanding of that character.

So make sure that during one of your middle edits (drafts 2 -4) that you pay close attention to your dialogue scenes and get them working for you instead of against you 😉

Happy Editing!

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