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?”
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:
“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’
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.