Many new writers complain that using “said” is too boring. They want to liven up their writing with new and different tags. The problem with using tags other than “said” is that 1) they call attention to themselves and draw the reader out of the story, and 2) they tell instead of show.
“You can’t mean that,” she shouted.
“But, I do,” he laughed.
“How can you be so cruel?” she questioned.
“It’s easy,” he intoned.
“I thought you loved me,” she cried.
“Never,” he exclaimed.
“But I love you. Please give me another chance,” she begged.
“Not interested,” he declared.
So what do you think? Don’t those tags call attention to themselves? Wouldn’t it have been easier to read if I’d used “said” instead? “Said” is a tag that virtually disappears. Readers don’t stumble over it. You can occasionally use, “asked” or “replied,” but do so sparingly.
The main problem with these tags is how they tell the reader what is going on in the story as opposed to showing what’s happening. This exchange seems to be between two people who are dating. A better way to show that dialogue might be:
“You can’t mean that,” she said as she brushed a tear from her cheek.
“But, I do.” He stepped to the side and she could hear a muted laugh.
“How can you be so cruel?”
“It’s easy.” He turned to face her, his expression void of emotion.
She swallowed the lump forming at the back of her throat. In a soft voice she said, “I thought you loved me.”
“Never.” The intensity of his voice startled her.
“But, I love you. Please, give me another chance.” She reached her hand out toward him.
How’s the second example? Does it show you more of what’s going on with these two people?
You don’t always have to use a dialogue tag if the reader knows which character is speaking. When you do use tags, make sure you use the invisible “said” for most of them.
Rebecca Talley grew up in Santa Barbara, CA. She now lives in rural CO on a small ranch with a dog, a spoiled horse, too many cats, and a herd of goats. She and her husband, Del, are the proud parents of ten multi-talented and wildly-creative children. Rebecca is the author of a children’s picture book “Grasshopper Pie” (WindRiver 2003), three novels, “Heaven Scent” (CFI 2008), “Altared Plans” (CFI 2009), and “The Upside of Down” (CFI 2011), and numerous magazine stories and articles. You can visit her blog at www.rebeccatalleywrites.blogspot.com.
3 thoughts on “He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags by Rebecca Talley”
Dialogue tags: my nemesis (nemeses?). I find them distracting in books, yet I throw them into my own. Thanks for the reminder.
While the two example are extremes, your point is well made. I would prefer a balance of somewhere in the middle. A word of caution: the word “said” can just as easily be overuse, and when it is, it certainly doesn’t disappear.
Nevertheless, this is a frequent topic of discussion in my writers group. I printed out your post to share.
Theodore Bernstein, the assistant managing editor of The New York Times, ridiculed his colleagues’ overreliance on synonyms of “said”: “In the days of our forefathers Tom Swift almost never said anything; he usually averred, asseverated, smiled, chuckled, grinned (plainly or mischievously), groaned, expostulated, ejaculated, declared, or asserted. . . . The simple verb said never seems to be good for more than one inning; then writers or editors feel they must rush in all kinds of bush-league relief pitchers.” The Careful Writer 283-84 (1965).
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