Dialogue Tags: How to Kill Off Some Of The Little Buggers

by Sharla Rae

In Laura Drake’s recent blog My Editing Peeves, here at WITS, she points out dialogue tags. I have to agree that too many “saids” on a page or even in a chapter are annoying. Sure there are other tags like snarled, whispered, interjected, cried etc. But again, they stand out if overused. Included in this illustrious list are all the he and she thoughts.

After taking a hard look at tags, I realized something. Tags are tattletales! He said, he yelled, he whispered. It’s “telling.” And one of the first lessons in writing is to “show” not “tell.” Don’t you love how writing is like knitting? One set of rules always weaves into another set. Okay, back to the subject of tags.

We can’t do without tags completely, but we can kill off some of the little buggers.

With only two characters on stage, tag extermination is easier. Using new paragraphs each time one of the two speaks eliminates the need for tags. Also, a character’s dialect, accent, or speech pattern may set them apart from other characters. Still, even with just two characters there are times it’s absolutely necessary to indicate who’s speaking to prevent confusion.

Now, place three or more characters on stage, and things get really complicated. Complicated, but not impossible. 

One of my favorite ways to kill a dialogue tag is through the use of body movement and/or body language. If a character is moving or has a certain facial expression, we don’t need the tag. Body language has the added benefit of expressing emotion. In other words, using this method “shows” a character is angry, happy, or depressed.  

Examples:

•  Instead of:  “Stop it!” James said. [He could be angry but then again he could be laughing hard and telling someone to stop it. But if we say: James said, angrily, we’re telling.]
Try:  James sliced the air with his hand. “Stop it!”
Try:  “Stop it!” James held his sides, laughing.

 • Instead of:  “Is she serious?” Amber asked, rolling her eyes.
 Try:  “Is she serious?” Amber rolled her eyes and laughed.

Instead of:  “Gosh, I love this song,” Jill said, dreamily. [Yikes it’s an “ly” word!]
Try:  “Gosh, I love this song.” Jill closed her eyes and swayed to the music.

Instead Of:  “Try it, you little weasel,” Jake bellowed. “Just try it.”
Try:  “Jakes palms slapped the tabletop. “Try it, you little weasel. Just try it.”

Instead of:  “You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him.
Try:  “You jerk!” Pam lashed out at him with her handbag.

The same idea applies to the he or she thought tags.

Example:

Instead of:  Can this day get any worse? Jane wondered.
 Try:  Jane slumped into the nearest easy chair and kicked off her shoes. Could this day get any worse?

•  Instead of: If he comes through that door, I’ll brain him, Jill silently vowed.
Try:  If he comes through that door, I’ll brain him. Jill’s fingernails bit into her palms. [Shows determination]

Punctuation can be used to negate tags that indicate strong feelings. To demonstrate what I mean, I’ll use one of my above examples.

“You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him.

Given there is an exclamation mark after jerk, we know Pam said this with strong feelings. Unless we want her screaming to draw the attention of characters around her, we don’t need to “tell” the reader she screamed. Also, her actions indicate anger and that makes the tag an even bigger overkill. But what if Pam said it under her breath so as not to draw attention? Do we need to say, she whispered? It works. But we could also say: Pam sneered and leaned close, her lips a mere inch from his ear. “Jerk.”

Note: Don’t over use exclamation marks. Again, body language will work just as well.

It must be said, though, that having all the characters on stage constantly nodding, scratching, dancing and throwing things would be just as annoying, not to mention ridiculous, as too many tags. So a few tags are allowed and in some instances they work better for a tight, straight to the point sentence.

I know of no set rules on how many dialogue tags are allowed on a page. The best rule of thumb is to vary your dialogue and cut them when possible. And if you’re still unsure, read the page out loud. Too many tags make the writing sound choppy. They also distract. The right balance will result in tighter writing that “shows” more and “tells” less.

Related Websites:

Three Places Where You Should Tell: http://wordplay-kmweiland.blogspot.com/2011/02/three-places-where-you-should-tell.html

From An Editor’s POV: http://theeditorsblog.net/2010/12/25/use-and-misuse-of-dialogue-tags/ 

The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags: http://www.writing-world.com/fiction/said.shtml

Avoid Creative Dialogue Syndrome: http://users.wirefire.com/tritt/tip4.html

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20 Responses to Dialogue Tags: How to Kill Off Some Of The Little Buggers

  1. Lynn Rush says:

    Fantastic post. Love the examples. They make the concepts come to life.

    Have a great day!

  2. DJ Weaver says:

    This is GREAT! My co-writer and I HATE dialogue for this very reason…to much tagging. These are wonderful suggestions that I will try to use in the future!

    • Sharla Rae says:

      I’m happy to hear the blogs help. Sometimes what seems like should be simple, isn’t. I’ve published three books and I just now realized as mentioned in the blog “why” tags are annoying and that’s the telling instead of showing element.🙂 Sharla

  3. Beth Yarnall says:

    This is good stuff. I’m reading a book right now in which the hero talks softly to the heroine ALL THE TIME. In a 3 page love scene he spoke softly 5 TIMES. Either he’s got a problem with his voice or the author was being lazy.
    I’m with Laura, be creative people and drop the -ly’s!

  4. Jenny Hansen says:

    I hear you, Beth! I always feel bad for the authors that didn’t have anyone say, “enough with the talking softly.” I remember critiquing someone who had lots of “happy tears” – like six times in two chapters. It’s distracting.

    Hey, are you on Twitter? Come find me @jhansenwrites!

  5. Great post. Sigh. I didn’t even know I had a problem but now that I do? No sweat. I already have the solution. Thanks!!! …uhm…I mean… Thanks.
    -Kara

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  7. Extremely helpful post. Tags 101.

  8. Jane Mackay says:

    Excellent post, thanks Sharla. I just posted it on my Janemac Editing FB page (click on my name for the link).

    Now I need to explore the rest of your blog!

  9. Yolanda says:

    Jenny,

    This blog is really good. As a novice writer, I am always looking for ways to improve. I’ve been told that I need to work on the show don’t tell by a few people. However, this is the first time that I’ve been given actual examples of show don’t tell.

    Thanks for putting this out there.

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  13. Yay someone else who detests dialog tags! I think I maybe use “said” only a couple times in any of my MS’s. I use action to emphasize the dialog, like you mentioned, and sometimes a tonal hint like “whispered” or “gasped”…but I hate the words “said” and “asked”

  14. Great post! I love all the advice! In regard to “You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him. – I read somewhere that sometimes it would be better to just leave out the tag and have him swing his fist.

    So, instead of “You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him. It would be – “You jerk!” Pam swung her handbag at him. Of course, in this situation, she could be playing around, too, so maybe she should scream it first…

    Any thoughts on that?

  15. Damon Dean says:

    Great advice. This is a keeper post for sure.

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