Dialogue Tags: Is “said” all you need?
One giveaway that I’m working on a manuscript by a fairly new writer (or with a writer who hasn’t worked with an editor before) is an abundant variety of dialogue tags.
Elmore Leonard advises writers to use only “said.” (Don’t know who Elmore Leonard is? Raylan Givens is shaking a finger at you and insisting you educate yourself. He’ll wait while you do so.)
I try to limit the variety of dialogue tags I use in my own writing and to limit them when I’m editing others’ writing, but I admit Mr. Leonard would argue I stray too often as I will sometimes use “answered,” “added,” and “replied,” among a few others.
With that said, consider this mess:
“How old are you?” she queried.
“Why do you want to know?” he demanded.
“I’m just curious!” she exclaimed.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s any of your business,” he insisted.
“Gee, you’re pretty infuriating. Did you know that?” she seethed.
“Gee, you’re pretty rude,” he muttered.
Isn’t that silly? Doesn’t it sound amateurish? (Don’t worry if it sounds like something you recently wrote. That’s why you’re here–to learn something. And that’s why I have a job–to help writers learn things and make their writing better.)
Here be the lessons:
- When you have a conversation going back and forth between two characters, you don’t need a dialogue tag with every line. You need enough of them to ensure the reader doesn’t get lost and lose track of who’s speaking, but this example is overkill. Even if I only used “said,” it would still sound silly–sillier even because of the repetitiveness.
- Writers often use “flowery” or otherwise clunky dialogue tags because it’s easier than showing what’s happening. You can just tell the reader that the speaker is angry by tagging her dialogue with “seethed.” That means she’s mad, right? Yes, but it’s lazy.
Show her anger building instead. For example:
“Well, I don’t know if it’s any of your business,” he said. [Editor’s note: Do away with “insisted” as I had above because we know he’s insisting without being told–he continues to evade the question.]
Her face turned red and a frown drew her brows together. Gritting her teeth and planting her fists on her hips, she said, “Gee, you’re pretty infuriating. Did you know that?”
Doesn’t that paint a more vivid picture while still conveying the same sentiment? It’s also a lot more active and more likely to drawn the reader in than simply using a dialogue tag such as “insisted.”
Now, you may be asking yourself if it’s okay to use something other than “said.” As far as I’m concerned, the answer is “yes,” but try to avoid using them as crutches. Why do I disagree with the venerated Mr. Leonard? Because some tags really do help build the scene. Consider these:
These are active tags, yes? They work to help the reader see and hear the scene. However, don’t use them too often or they’ll lose their punch and their effectiveness.
Do you have questions about dialogue tags–or anything else related to writing and/or editing? Please reach out. Send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or leave a comment below. I enjoy helping writers and look forward to hearing from you!