As a beginning writer, I used to add things to my dialogue, little snippets that told the tone or actions of my characters. These are called dialogue tags. I got pretty mad when, later on, I learned that this baggage actually held my dialogue back.
I’d always assumed that if I didn’t add a tag, no one would know how my character felt. But it’s just the opposite. Simple dialogue—stripped clean of all those tags—carries a poignancy that leaves it resonating in the reader’s ears.
People use dialogue tags for a few reasons. They think it adds emotion the character. They’re trying to break up the dialogue. They’re trying to avoid going “he said, she said,” every other sentence. Knowing how to avoid these problems is all part of good dialogue. But trust me, tags aren’t the way to go. Here are a few quick solutions:
If you want to add emotion to the character… Most of the time a tag adds a false, generic emotion: angrily, sadly, gently, happily. This is telling, one of the cardinal sins for writers. You want to show. So instead of telling – “he said softly” – replace the tag with an action, so you can show how the character is feeling – “he said, touching her cheek.”
If you want to break up the dialogue… Sometimes, you need tags to break up long bouts of talk. So describe a bit of the setting. Let the character change position or blow their nose or adjust their glasses. Or, you can always use “said.”
If you want to avoid “he said, she said…” You don’t need to use “said” for every line of dialogue. Most people can follow a two-person conversation without the tags. Use “said” when you’re introducing a new speaker, or to break up the pace after a bit of talking. But that’s it. You don’t need it more than that.
Do you want to know the main reason why writers use tags? Because we like them. We enjoy stating that our characters “chirped” or “giggled” or “mumbled obsessively.” It’s fun. But tags drag our writing down. They take precedence over the dialogue, and then dialogue becomes meaningless.
I had a friend edit some of my early work. When she took out many of my dialogue tags, I asked her why. (I was a bit peeved.) She explained that they were unnecessary. The tags took precedence over the dialogue, and the dialogue became meaningless. Take a look.
Dialogue without tags:
“What do you want?” Mercedes asked.
“Nothing. I don’t want anything.”
“I’m sure neither of us believes that.”
Roth paused. “But it’s true.”
Dialogue with tags:
Jeremy grumbled. “Dude. Relax.”
“I am relaxed, just shut up and let me think!” Ashton said in frustration.
“Sure, princess,” Jeremy said sarcastically.
“That’s it!” Ashton roared. “You. Out. Now!”
The difference is tangible.
Think of tags like baking soda – a little baking soda goes a long, long way. The best dialogue stands on it’s own. If, by now, you’re still not convinced, read some of your favorite books. Look for the ones with the best dialogue, and note how they write. I’ll bet they limit their tags.