Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #17: Dialogue Tags

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Dialogue tags – they’re such a tiny little thing and yet they have a huge impact on the quality, flow, and professionalism of your novel. Dialogue tags are the little bits of text that attribute the dialogue to the speaker. The most common dialogue tag is “he said.” But they can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (many of them worse than others).

Not convinced of their importance? Think about how many of them grace the pages of your novel. All of those little buggers really add up, and they can give the impression that you’re a seasoned pro or an amateur without their sea legs.

Here’s how to master the use of dialogue tags:

Stick with the Basics

As tempting as it can be to veer off into the land of bizarre-o dialogue tags, it’s best to stick to the basics – the tried and true tags that readers don’t even notice. If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this:

Dialogue tags should be invisible.

Not like invisible ink invisible, but like seen-it-ten-thousand-times-and-don’t-even-care invisible. Dialogue tags are functional. They’re not intended to be fun or expressive or artistic. They’re like punctuation marks. Sometimes a semicolon makes more sense than a period, but you can’t just start throwing ampersands and asterisks around.

So what are the basic, invisible dialogue tags? For 95% of cases, stick to either “she said” or “he asked.” If you really absolutely have to convey the volume of the voice, an occasional “he whispered” or “she shouted” is okay.

Any other dialogue tags in your novel should be necessary for clarity. For example, you may wish to use “he lied” if the reader truly doesn’t know that a character was lying. Likewise, “he joked” might be used if it’s not clear that a character is joking. But the goal should be to make these things clear within the dialogue itself.

The dialogue tags should not be doing the heavy lifting.

Indicate Volume or Tone Upfront

If you do decide that you need to use a dialogue tag to convey volume or tone, put the dialogue tag before the text whenever possible. This allows the reader to read the dialogue with the correct tone or volume level the first time.

There is nothing more jarring than reading dialogue in a normal tone only to find out at the end of the text that the character was supposed to be screaming or whispering.

The longer the dialogue, the more important it is to indicate the volume or tone prior to the dialogue.

Dialogue Tags Only Describe the Dialogue

This is more of a punctuation mistake than anything else, but it can look unprofessional, especially when the issue is repeated throughout the manuscript.

Remember that dialogue tags only describe the dialogue. They cannot be used to describe actions. For example:

“Let’s go,” he ran down the road.  < Wrong!

“Let’s go.” He ran down the road. < Right!

Dialogue tags should also never be used to describe sounds other than dialogue. For example:

“You’re so funny,” he laughed. < Wrong!

“You’re so funny.” He laughed. < Right!

“You’re so funny,” he said, laughing. < Right!

Dialogue Tags Should Not Have Adverbs

I will admit that as far as editors go, I’m a bit more on the lenient side with adverbs than most. I might allow for one or two in a chapter if I feel that it’s the best way to convey a concept. And certain adverbs that fly below the radar I won’t necessarily mess with at all. But still, when it comes to dialogue tags, it’s best to forget about the adverbs.

Here are some examples of unneeded adverbs:

“We’re leaving,” she said decidedly. < It’s pretty clear that she’s made a decision. The adverb isn’t adding anything that isn’t already clear.

“Well why don’t I just kill myself then!” she said dramatically. < It’s pretty clear she’s being dramatic here. I don’t think anyone will question it.

“What exactly are you doing?” he said suspiciously. < Especially with context clues, no one is going to be confused about the fact that he’s suspicious.

Note that certain styles of omniscient POV might get away with using some adverbs in dialogue tags.

Use Dialogue Tags Sparingly

This is an element of dialogue tags that many aspiring writers don’t realize – you don’t have to use them. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can avoid them much of the time.

Remember that they serve a functional purpose. That purpose is to indicate to the reader who is speaking. If there is no doubt about who is speaking, then a dialogue tag isn’t needed.

For example, in a conversation with two people, after the pattern is established with the first two lines of dialogue, subsequent dialogue tags may not be necessary for a number of lines. You don’t want to go for pages without reminders of who is who, but you should be able to easily go several lines without dialogue tags.

Use Action in Place of Dialogue Tags

Another way to skip dialogue tags is to use actions, movements, gestures, facial expressions, etc. to convey who is speaking. For example:

Ash wiped sweat from his brow. “I don’t know, Amanda.”

She scrunched her mouth. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know.”

She huffed. “Whatever.”

“Why do you always have to be that way.” Ash turned to go.

Amanda paused, bit her lip. “I’m sorry, okay?”

The scene above doesn’t have a single dialogue tag. Using action in place of dialogue tags reads quick and punchy and can add a professional touch to your writing.

Homework: Reduce and Simplify Your Dialogue Tags

Choose a chunk of your text to analyze or start at the beginning and go through as much of your novel as you have time to work through. Find your dialogue tags and work on improving them by:

  • Cutting unneeded tags.
  • Using action in place of dialogue tags where possible.
  • Cutting adverbs from dialogue tags.
  • Replacing “fancy” dialogue tags with the more standard invisible ones.

Read a few scenes with this new approach to dialogue tags and enjoy the smooth, professional feel of your novel.

Not sure you’ve got this punctuation thing down? Check out my Ultimate Guide on Punctuating Dialogue.

Connect with Other Novel Boot Camp Participants

Need a writing friend? Got a question? Need a shoulder to cry on? We’re there for you!

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I will be answering writing and editing questions on our Twitter hashtag as time allows. Due to the insane volume of emails I’m receiving, I cannot provide free advice or assistance via email. Thank you!

What is Novel Boot Camp?

Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

7 thoughts on “Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #17: Dialogue Tags

  1. Kylie Betzner says:

    Great advice! Very clear and upfront. I wish I had this two years ago when I was trying to learn by trial and error. For revision purposes, though, this is still very helpful. Thank you for sharing!

  2. amcasselman says:

    I love this boot camp. I read the lecture, scan over my MS, and can instantly see how to improve my novel and my craft.

  3. jennfs10 says:

    Thank you for this. It’s a great review and reinforces what I learned several years ago that simple is still the best way!

  4. Rebecca P. says:

    Ellen, do you think that the rules need to be relaxed for MG novels, because inexperienced readers can get confused more easily and need a little more interpretation (though adverbs) than adult readers?

  5. gillianstkevern says:

    I have been referring to your Ultimate Guide on Punctuating Dialogue while working on my draft revisions this month, and I have to say that it might be the single most practical guide to punctuation I’ve seen. Ever. Indicating volume upfront is a great rule, one that would not have occurred to me at all, and I will definitely be referring back to it.

    Thanks again!

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