The Great Dialogue Tag Debate


Round and round this issue we, the community, go.


My name is Meg, and I'm here to talk to you today about Dialogue Tags. This is not going to be a long list of "alternatives to 'said,'" with a bunch of sub-categories that connote the meaning behind each synonym; I want to get a little more in-depth.


Before I get started, I'd like to apologize for posting this a day late. I had some horrible allergies yesterday, and I took Benadryl to counteract some itching/swelling in my hands, which knocked me into a short coma. I'm back and getting this guy cleaned up as quick as I can!


The very first rule of good prose is this: never over-complicate (unless you are a literary genius, like Steven Brust, imitating the style of Alexander Dumas and being intentionally long-winded, anfractuous, and, for lack of a better term, as the author could, likely, use a simple turn of phrase but chooses, instead, to carry on and seek out a word that will appeal to particularly literary-minded individuals, or at least to their egos as men and women of literature, abstruse).


Dialogue Tags Dialogue tags are the words used after a character has spoken, such as "he said," and "she whispered." (source)


Dialogue can be a slow point in your manuscript, depending on your style of writing. Often, you may find your characters struggling to find words, yourself inserting "he said" into the prose excessively, and other problems in that family.


I've heard conflicting advice from both sides of the debate (which I'll outline in a moment), each side certain that they are correct and should stick to their guns!


A school of thought exists to the tune of "never use said!" The idea here is that you should avoid "said" 100% of the time and always look for an alternative.


On the flipside of this issue are the folks who believe that "said" is perfectly fine as it is, and they find prose to be cluttered and difficult to follow with too many synonyms.


Slightly outside of this conversation are the "don't use tags, use actions!" writers. In fact, all three of these beliefs are right, after a fashion. The trick is to incorporate all of these ideas in a way that flows, makes sense, and doesn't muddy your writing.


I'll be calling on good ol' Eli and Lionidas for this one! Let's get started with those examples you folks love so much. In fact, since this has always been a non-issue for me, I'm going to reverse-engineer these examples from my writing! I'll revise in each way, according to the "rules" laid out above, and then I'll show you my way.


Rule One: Always use alternative dialogue tags.


Example 1: “Actually, I’d like to get him familiar with HQ before we start introducing him to...people.” Singer mumbled, with an uncertain look at Walker.

The Section Chief balked momentarily, before nodding. “Right. Go ahead, then! If you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork to finish. I’d like to enjoy myself without burden at the shindig. Again, pleasure to meet you, Lionidas.”

“Shindig?” Lionidas inquired. He watched the man leave.

Singer grumbled incoherently. He explained, “Bureau’s throwing some fancy cocktail dress party. Excuse for the suits to get drunk while they’re in town auditing, if you ask me. Patty?” He called, to get her attention.

Patty’s attention snapped from her computer screen. “Yes? Sir?” She babbled.


I don't have to look at this much to know that it's bulky and awkward. The very first "mumbled" seems alright, but by "she babbled" it's clear we are using unnecessary synonyms.


Rule Two: Always use said/asked.


Example 2:

“Actually, I’d like to get him familiar with HQ before we start introducing him to...people.” Singer said, with an uncertain look at Walker.

The Section Chief balked momentarily, before nodding. Then, he said, “Right. Go ahead, then! If you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork to finish. I’d like to enjoy myself without burden at the shindig. Again, pleasure to meet you, Lionidas.”

“Shindig?” Lionidas asked. He watched the man leave.

Singer grumbled incoherently. He said, “Bureau’s throwing some fancy cocktail dress party. Excuse for the suits to get drunk while they’re in town auditing, if you ask me. Patty?” He said, to get her attention.

Patty’s attention snapped from her computer screen. “Yes? Sir?” She asked.


Again, you can see that this example is actually quite bulky. A lot of the tags feel unnecessary and tacked-on, and by limiting my dialogue tags it gets painfully repetitive. What's more, though, is notice the difference in tone between Example 1 and Example 2. While 2 might seem a bit much (because it is), at least you can infer what the tone of the person speaking might be.


Now, out of the three rules I've set forth, I think the last one is the easiest on the eyes and brain, but I'll go over that after the example.


Rule Three: Do away with dialogue tags altogether.


Example 3: “Actually, I’d like to get him familiar with HQ before we start introducing him to...people.” Singer gave an uncertain look to Walker.

The Section Chief balked momentarily, before nodding. “Right. Go ahead, then! If you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork to finish. I’d like to enjoy myself without burden at the shindig. Again, pleasure to meet you, Lionidas.”

“Shindig?” Lionidas watched the man leave.

Singer grumbled incoherently. “Bureau’s throwing some fancy cocktail dress party. Excuse for the suits to get drunk while they’re in town auditing, if you ask me. Patty?”

Patty’s attention snapped from her computer screen. “Yes? Sir?”


While this has slimmed down the paragraph a bit (and you all know how I love trimming fat from prose), some of the lines become a bit muddy. The first line, where "Singer gave an uncertain look to Walker," does imply that Singer is the speaker in question...but it doesn't outright state it, and it could be Singer giving a look in response to something Walker is saying. Slightly below that, where we have dialogue from Lionidas, it's not exactly clear that I mean for him to be speaking as a character exits the scene. This is a more subtle one, but it's little things like this that will interrupt your flow. It's almost like Lionidas speaks, and then Walker exits. In doing this, I've halted the action sequence to insert dialogue. It's small, it's subtle, but it matters. Singer's next line is something that would confuse me as an editor, from an outside perspective: "Singer grumbled incoherently." Surely, if he is grumbling incoherently, my main character cannot decipher what he is saying? Why write the dialogue at all? From an inside perspective, I know that he uttered something under his breath, then directed audible words at Lionidas.


This last example is throwing out the "rules," and focusing on adjusting the flow of the paragraph so that it's easy to follow, not tiring for the reader, and doesn't get repetitive.


Example 4:

“Actually, I’d like to get him familiar with HQ before we start introducing him to...people.” Singer mumbled the last part with an uncertain look at Walker.

The Section Chief balked, momentarily. “Right. Go ahead, then!” He nodded to the both of them. “If you’ll excuse me, I have some paperwork to finish. I’d like to enjoy myself without burden at the shindig. Again, pleasure to meet you, Lionidas.”

“Shindig?” Lionidas inquired, watching the man leave.

Singer grumbled incoherently, then said, “Bureau’s throwing some fancy cocktail dress party. Excuse for the suits to get drunk while they’re in town auditing, if you ask me.” He sighed and turned, slightly. “Patty?”

Patty’s attention snapped from her computer screen. “Yes? Sir?”


These are some minor alterations I've made that should, hopefully, paint a picture of tone, action, and sequence. It should flow naturally and be easy for the reader to follow.

By adding that Singer mumbled only the last part, while glancing uneasily at his colleague, I've managed to put some emphasis on people, which can tell my reader a lot about what Singer is implying, without explicitly stating it or making the MC observe undertones. The reader is free to pick that out for themselves.

I've also left dialogue tags off the second line, but I broke the dialogue itself up to give you an idea of body language from this character.

I add an "inquired" to the next line of dialogue, since Lionidas doesn't exactly "ask" a question, more states one word with an inquiring tone.

I added "then said," to Singer's next line of dialogue, clarifying that he grumbled first then spoke to the other character. I broke the dialogue there up by adding that he turned his attention to another character, and I did away with Patty's dialogue tags altogether because we can infer that she is the one speaking, based on the description of her actions preceding her dialogue. I mixed all three elements in a way that breaks down the monotony of a dialogue between a large group of people, without adding excessive action phrases like nodding, fidgeting, looking around, etc. These are common fallbacks I see in conversations. They are useful to indicate body language, but if you constantly have characters twiddling thumbs, eyes darting, nodding, etc. You're going to create a whole cast of very mobile, uneasy-feeling characters.


I have an exercise for you this week! I know you don't all get out and have conversations with strangers (I know I certainly don't), but next time you're chatting in-person with someone, pay attention to how much they actually move around. Do they really nod every other sentence? Raise their eyebrows? Shake their heads? Look around the room? I would wager not. If someone is doing these things, I am generally uneasy, feeling like the person to whom I am speaking is restless, jittery, or nervous. Usually, in conversation, someone has a fixed point they are looking at, be it me, their phone, or something else in their hands. They typically don't move much unless they're prone to gesturing (like me). Most people don't nod unless they are acknowledging something and they can't use their words for some reason. People almost never quirk their eyebrows. Watch and see how often this actually happens with folks.


Again, sorry for the late post! Thank you all for being patient and wonderful!


Next week, I'm going to take a break from the "writing" perspective and delve into what you should be looking for in an editor. In fact, during the month of February, I may focus more on the critique side of writing: editors, betas, publishers, or anything else that may fall into that category.


Have a lovely week, keep writing!


Edit: If you would like to be part of the official Overhaul My Novel Beta Program launch, please complete all signup items by Saturday, February 2nd! The program launches Monday the 4th.


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