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Thursday, July 02, 2009

Reader Question: Dialogue Tags (Friend or Foe?)

Tsuki (a friend from Young Writers Online) recently asked me whether dialogue tags are good or bad, so I thought I would tackle that question here.

The problem with dialogue tags is that everyone who has been professionally/traditionally published, and has been successful at it, has different opinions on how to properly use dialogue tags. Michael A. Stackpole, for example, often argues (on the Dragon Page and elsewhere) that dialogue tags are pretty much pointless, and that having them in your prose can create unnecessary clutter. Others, such as Stephen King, say that the only dialogue tags you should use are "he said/she said." There are a myriad of opinions on this subject and none of them are necessarily correct. Much of what matters when it comes to dialogue tags is based on personal style. I very much doubt that readers care whether you use "he said/she said" or no tags at all; the folks who tend to care most about that are writers themselves with particular tastes in how things should be done.

But is there a right way to do it?

The way I've come to see dialogue tags is that they're generally unnecessary. There's little reason to have "he said/she said" primarily because it should be pretty obvious who is speaking in your prose. If your characters are distinct individuals, and you throw in useful description around your dialogue to help differentiate who is talking, why would you ever need "he said/she said"? We don't say "he said/she said" in the real world. We just say it.

That being said, if you're going to use dialogue tags, stick with the standard ("he said/she said"). Anything else is amateur at best (such as "he replied" or "she spat" or he grumbled"). If your character is doing something a certain way, show it to us rather than telling us about it. Dialogue should have a flow to it. I personally have a lot of issues with dialogue, but removing unnecessary dialogue tags helps a great deal.

If you decide to use dialogue tags, keep them simple. Clogging your prose with antiquated terms and pointless descriptive language to make your dialogue seem more interesting will ruin the feel of your story. And that's a big no-no if you want to keep the attention of your audience.

What about all you readers? What do you do with your dialogue and why?


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  1. Quietus5:49 PM

    The only time I believe that dialogue tags are okay to use, albeit unnecessary if everything is clear, is when you have more than two characters speaking at one another. Though, like you said, if the characters have distinct personalities and you use description with the dialogue, then they should rarely be used.

    I am one to use dialogue tags though, and in my later writing, I've been forcing myself not to use too many and add much, much more description with it.

    It doesn't really bother me while reading either. It doesn't affect me if they're there or if they're absent.

    *This is Quietus from YWO, btw*

  2. For me, a non-fiction writer who is now ghost writing my second allegory for a client, it depends - as it so often does.

    So I've got john or jane saids x said emphatically... but used judicially... I think. I read my stuff out loud which helps me hear what my eye misses and if I get confused I know the target reader will... after all I know who is who. If I need a tag I use it.

    You're right, its the mark of an amateur to use them too much, but it's also the mark of an amateur not to use them when they make the passage clear.

  3. Quietus: That's certainly a way to do it. And I know who you are :P.

    The way I see it, though, is that dialogue tags really don't need to be anything more than the basic/standard ones. Readers already tune those out anyway (or at least gloss over them). But there's nothing wrong with "he said/she said," unless you use it for EVERYTHING. You only need it once or twice in dialogue to get your point across. And dialogue should flow.

    Anne: I've never found reading allowed to be useful, but a lot of people do, so it's good advice for any writer to try. Different methods work for different people.

    Thanks for stopping by both of you!

  4. I am a fan of mixing up dialog tags just a little. 95% he/she said, a little bit other. But first I try to avoid using them at all by making the stage business do the work.

  5. Thanks for your opinions on the matter, writtenwyrd! Appreciate it :).