I have been taking a writing course where the teacher criticizes the use of “he said” or “she said” and prefers the use of character action to tell who is talking. I find that at times adhering strictly to action (as my teacher demands) over an occasional “said” tag line can create a cumbersome experience for the reader. Do we really need to show the reader every body movement the character makes? Isn’t it possible to tell you who is talking without weakening the story?
Dialog tags are used to remind the reader of who is speaking. Unless you have extremely individualized and unique character voices, you have to use something to differentiate speakers.
There are two types of tags:
The standard dialog tag, which attributes the dialog to a particular character using the “he said/she said” (or a variation thereof). The word “said” is nearly invisible to the reader and is therefore preferred over things like, “he shouted” or “she squeaked.”
- “Get out of my way before I knock you down,” she said.
- John said, “I’d like to see you try.” [a little less invisible when the tag comes before the dialog, but still okay when used sparingly.]
This type of dialog tag does not weaken the story, but neither does it move it forward or provide the necessary beats to keep your conversations from bouncing like a ping pong ball in play.
The action tag, which shows action by a character before, after or in the middle of speaking, allows the reader to assume that the acting character is the one speaking. This is a great way to add a beat, deepen characterization, and to disrupt the repetition of the bouncing he said/she said pattern.
- LDS Publisher tossed her head and laughed. “That Anon is such a smarty pants!”
- “I just don’t know what to think.” Kara brushed her bangs out of her eyes. “Is it possible? Could he really like me?”
I find that action tags are often underused—and I personally like them. Many books would do well to use them more often. I do agree with you that if used exclusively, they can become annoying and cumbersome, but perhaps not as much as you think.
Pay attention to dialog tags as you read your favorite books. When do they use one over the other? Ask yourself if it adds to the story or detracts. But bottom line—do what your teacher (or agent, editor, publisher) tell you to do.