The Dialogue Tag Debate

Dialogue tags are one of those components of writing about which everyone seems to have an opinion. A dialogue tag, according to edittorrent, “is a clause of two words or more which attributes speech to a particular speaker.” (The above is a really great article on dialogue tags–I recommend it.)

An example from my last scene:

“I really hate coming here,” said Lily.

The dialogue tag on this opening line of the scene immediately orients us that it is Lily (our ghost) speaking aloud.

Generally, we think about tags as a way to easily identify who is talking. There are other ways to do this besides tagging, however. One favorite of my friend Zoe is to use what is tantamount to stage direction (we were just discussing this issue yesterday, which is why I opted to post about it this morning).

Another example:

Ellen shook her head. “You girls these days just don’t do things the same way we did.”

We get a bit of action from the speaking character that indicates who the dialogue belongs to. Stage direction like this is a great way to avoid a glut of tags, particularly in scenes with more than two people where tagging is more necessary and can easily slow the scene. However, the purpose of this post is not so much how to avoid dialogue tags, it’s how to use them properly.

I believe it was Stephen King in On Writing, who stated that the only dialogue tags worth using were said and asked. It was the first time I’d been exposed to that idea and since then, I’ve come across a number of people who feel the same. I remember my immediate reaction being “No way! You’ve got to be kidding me. There are so many other interesting words out there besides ‘said’ and ‘asked’.” And, yeah, therein lies the problem.

There are all sorts of ways for people to speak that easily fall into the realm of purple prose. One possibility that comes to mind “ejaculated”. I don’t think any modern person sees that one as a way to speak. Ahem. So yes, I see how it can be overdone. If you’re using some specialized tag with every other line of dialogue, it detracts from what’s being said, and is very likely a good indication that your dialogue itself is not strong enough to clearly indicate the emotion/intent/tone without a special tag. Definitely something to watch and work on. I know that I have a special phobia of “ly” words in general, but most particularly in relation to how someone said something.

Kate Donovan brings up an interesting point in her post–that the paragons always quoted about the “only use said” school of thought are men. I’m not sure how far I want to chase that aspect of it, but so many of these “special” tags seem to be related to emotion somehow or other, something most male writers seem to avoid. I wouldn’t at all call this a hard and fast gender issue because there are plenty of female editors out there who agree with this POV that frequent use of anything other than said/ask is a no-no and a sign of anamateur.

I think, for me, there has to be a happy medium. Yes, I can certainly stand to beef up the strength of my dialogue in order to use fewer “special” tags in my work. But as a reader, I absolutely cannot stand writers who use nothing but said/asked. That pulls me out of a story faster than use of something different. All I can think is “don’t you know any other words?” So it isn’t universally true that readers don’t pay attention to said/asked. This one does. And that is reflected in my work. Looking over one of my recent scenes with lots of dialogue, in five pages I only use six instances of said or asked. The rest of the dialogue is set off with stage direction, direct address, or some other type of tag. According to editttorrent, the rule is you can go for three exchanges before you have to use a tag again. That’s a useful rule for me, as I am often guilty of either undertagging–at which point Pot busts me–then overtagging–when she busts me again–before I finally settle in with a reasonable and clear number.

Personally, I think if you can avoid the purple prose, vary your presentation of dialogue so that it doesn’t use all of the same type of attributions, and don’t wind up using tags that denote the speaker saying something in a way that is physically impossible (i.e. You cannot grin dialogue. You can grin, then speak, speak, then grin. Zoe busts me on this all the time), then you’re in good shape.

A few other good posts on the issue of dialogue tags:

Dialogue Tags NOT To Use

Words That Are Not Dialogue Tags

The Use And Abuse of Dialogue Tags

Dialogue Tags and Stage Direction

A Discussion on Bookends

3 thoughts on “The Dialogue Tag Debate

  1. I think if you think of it like theatre, it works the same way. If something were performed all in monotone, GOSH that would be boring. But when it’s all EMOTIONS-TIMES-ELEVENTY-BILLION then it’s really campy and it doesn’t connect with anybody.

    In my mind, special tags function like spices in a good dish. Too much and it’s overpowering, but too little and it’s bland. Only people who focus really heavily on plot can get away without tags, and people who focus entirely on relationships don’t actually go anywhere with their stuff. A healthy medium is ideal.

    Shakespeare’s stuff was great. He really gave the actors time just to talk and let the audience get to know them, but he threw in plot and emotion as well. But I think he knew that the audience wouldn’t be bowled over by constant vaudeville-type emotion. He had to woo the audience into caring about the characters. I think every author faces that challenge.

  2. …unrelated to your post really but reading it slammed on the brakes to the current WIP where the ghost’s name is Lily. Apparently, the flower of death inspires the name, eh? Booo. Bummer. I see a name change in my character’s future.

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