EDITING 101: 06 – He Said / She Said: Dialogue Tags…

Originally posted as the Dun Writin’—Now Whut? series on this blog, EDITING 101 is a weekly refresher series for some of you and brand new for others.

Courtesy of Adirondack Editing

He Said / She Said: Dialogue Tags

Can you pass the salt?” Richard asked.

Like hell,” Katherine muttered.

Did you say something, sweetie?” Richard continued.

I will not pass you the salt!” Katherine shouted.

And on we go, another happy marriage on the rocks. So, what’s wrong with this exchange? It’s a combination of several things, but we’re going to focus on one: dialogue tags.

In Self-Editing for Fiction Writers, Renni Browne and Dave King start their chapter on dialogue mechanics by quoting a New York Times reviewer discussing a book by Mr. Robert Ludlum:

Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum seldom “say” anything. Instead, they cry, interject, interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble, whisper … intone, roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter.

Using words such as “roared” or “muttered” convey emotion and character, true. But I’m sorry to say, it’s taking the easy way out. Using such tags may be appropriate for a first draft, when you’re just trying to get the emotion and story down. But an experienced writer will go back and revise these passages, creating meaningful scenes and action tags that replace these dialogue tags.

I don’t claim to be a great writer, but here’s my attempt at writing this event in a better way:

_______________________________________________________

Richard’s nose was buried in his newspaper as usual. “Can you pass the salt?”

Like hell.”

The newspaper bent in half, and Richard gazed at Katherine. “Did you say something, sweetie?” He anticipated her morning tantrum. After all, the coffee wasn’t finished yet.

I will not pass you the salt!”

_______________________________________________________

It’s better, and more difficult, to write good action and character development that leads to strong dialogue. Sometimes it’s just not necessary to use another word instead of “said.” Can you see how the emotion is expressed adequately by the added scene description and details? That’s not to say an occasional “mumbled,” when appropriate, will kill your writing or irritate your readers. Let’s just save them for when necessary.

A final note—the word “said” becomes invisible to the reader. Their eyes skip past the words and do not interrupt the flow of speech or of the story.

Using a tag such as “muttered” takes the reader out of the story, interrupting the dialogue to point the reader in the right direction. It indicates you believe the reader doesn’t understand where you are going. If they truly don’t, it shows a weakness in your writing that needs to be corrected. In addition, if the situation doesn’t match the dialogue tag, your reader will be confused.

There are also words frequently used as dialogue tags that can’t physically be accomplished. They include:

  • Smiled

  • Laughed

  • Grinned

  • Moaned

I’m leaving now,” smiled Richard.

You cannot smile words. You can’t laugh words, moan words, or grin words. They are action tags, not dialogue tags. The appropriate fix is:

I’m leaving now.” Richard smiled.

Next week we’ll discuss ‘Consecutive Versus Concurrent Action’

To see the index and catch up with missed episodes of this series – CLICK HERE

NOTE:

This series is not meant to be (nor will it be) simple static information.

I’ll be here for each post to answer questions, offer suggestions as necessary, and interact with you.

If there’s something you specifically want (or need!) to see addressed in terms of self-editing, please let me know in the comments under this, or any of the articles of the series.

Susan

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28 thoughts on “EDITING 101: 06 – He Said / She Said: Dialogue Tags…

  1. Reblogged this on TINA FRISCO and commented:
    In Part 6 of Editing 101, Susan Uttendorfsky discusses dialogue tags and action tags. I found this very enlightening and think it’s something that a lot of writers struggle with. Hop over to The Story Reading Ape’s blog to read Susan’s informative article with its helpful suggestions…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I totally agree. If you treat your reader like an itnelligent human being, you DON’t need tags to let them know who’s doing the talking. To show you what I mean, here’s a shippet fromthe first chapter of my WIP, HURRICANE kRETSCHMAN. Notice the absence of tags and the fact that you can easilty tell who’s talking, and what they’re thinking:

    “The host led them to a booth in front of a wall-to-wall stretch of glass that overlooked the ocean.
    And Fish remained standing until Shawna had taken her seat.
    She moved to the apex of the u-shaped banquette and offered him the seat next to her.
    “Sit here, Baby,” she smiled up at him. “Got a little surprise for you.”
    The Big Dog did as she requested, sliding all the way across the upholstery until he and Shawna were hip to hip.
    “First,” She leaned into Fish and kissed him, nibbling a little on his bottom lip.
    “Mmmm. I was going to say something wise-ass here. But–” Fish slowly shook his head.
    The deputy gave him another quick peck on the lips.
    “You’re smarter than you look, citizen.”
    Then she laughed.
    “Here, close your eyes and hold out your hand.”
    “This my surprise?”
    “You’ll see,” Shawna giggled and kissed his ear. “Ok, keep ‘em closed, now.”
    She took Fish’s hand in hers and drew it down to her lap.
    “I just wanted to say thank you, Fish. For such a wonderful day.”
    Then Deputy Kretschman slid his hand under the table cloth and under her dress.
    She wasn’t wearing any panties.
    “Shawna, you’ve got one Hell of a way with words.”

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Alleluia. And yes, even “said” can be redundant with will written dialogue. It becomes obvious to follow the action (yes, a dialogue is a piece of action) and who’s saying what. The usual mantra of ‘show, don’t tell’ works in dialogues as well.

    Liked by 2 people

  4. “Supposedly” the word ‘said’ disappears into the background for the reader… BUT, if the segment is being read aloud, the word ‘said’ becomes nauseatingly revolting. A speaker shared a segment of one of her favorite books. By the time she finished, everyone in the room, including the speaker, was cringing at each ‘said’ the author had written. Also, you’re correct, one cannot smile, grin, etc their conversations. Great article. I use dialog heavily in my writing and have learned to eliminate many ‘said’ and not replace them with verbs like mutter, sputter, yell, holler, etc. Set the mood with action, the reader will know how the words are being spoken. There is an insurance commercial (in the USA) where two different scenarios are displayed and the conversation is identical – only the emotions are different. I love it!!

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, Bob, this is the only reason against using “said” I’ve ever heard, and I assume it’s valid (I haven’t listened to a fiction audiobook). Perhaps if an author is going to release their book that way, they should first review it and delete as many dialogue tags as possible… I haven’t seen that insurance commercial because I don’t have commercial TV, but it sounds like a great way to show what can be done with emotions! 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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