Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Dialogue tags: Which side are you on?

Recently, I've been working on a novella for the Flora series. The books in the series are in the main character's point of view, but this novella is in someone else's--it bridges the gap between book one and book two. Being as the character isn't from "here" (he's from a place where they are yet to use electricity, and the clothes are different, and they speak differently, et cetera...), I'm writing from a different point of view than I'm used to. And, in trying to make this character stand out on his own but not be boring, I'm finding myself more aware than ever of dialogue tags and the way writers use them. Which, of course, made me wonder what most of you all do, and if you're as aware of them when reading as you are when you write.

Screen shot from

To me, the word conversation pretty much says it all... people don't stare at one another, deadpan, their voices monotone, when they interact in real life.  When they respond, they interact, they shout, they whisper, they stand up straight, they cower, they crouch. To say he said without adding anything, always, can (in my opinion) make a read feel stiff.

I've seen fellow writers on a few different sides over the years, including:

*Never do anything other than he said/she said because the readers are smart enough people to get what's left unsaid.

*Throw every description available out there, because the reader will appreciate it.

*Hey--whatever works and is necessary to make a great story--do a mainly she saids, along with a few glowers, a few grimaces, a few chuckles...

As a writer, I am on the "whatever works" side; but I do think it depends on the book and the characters and the author's voice. 

How about you? Have you ever found yourself pulled from a story because of specific dialogue tag use? What do you prefer to write? I'd love to hear about it in the comments! :)


ilima said...

I think anything that doesn't pull you out of the story works. In my own books, that's using said/say, a very few other tags super sparingly (ask, whisper, yell), but mostly no dialogue tag at action or expression from the person speaking is plenty.

Katrina L. Lantz said...

I have been pulled from a story by an overly florid dialogue tag, but more often I'm pulled from the story by an abundance of -ly words. But that's probably more because of my training as an editor than because of the actual writing/story. My sister has pointed out to me that my knowledge of the rules sometimes stifles my creativity and ability to enjoy a story. Hmm, something to work on.

Angelica R. Jackson said...

I try to give each character a distinctive voice, and that helps with not using as many dialogue tags. Doesn't always work, but it helps!

Janice Hardy has a good post on dialogue up today, if anyone wants further reading.

Miss Cole said...

I think said does the job perfectly because it's practically invisible and doesn't drag you out of the flow. Throw in a little variety now and then, but too much variation is surprisingly disruptive... in my opinion.

Karen McCoy said...

I sometimes get a bit weary of ones that are used often, lots of eye narrowing, eyebrow furrowing, that sort of thing. Otherwise, whatever fits with the story cadence works well. And I second Angelica's Janice Hardy recommendation--a great blog to follow.

Rachel said...

I have to say that said/say for me jumps off he page and breaks the flow for me unless it's used sparingly. I prefer beats to tags, action and description work much better for me on most occasions and can truly flesh out a story. That said repetitive motions (i.e. eyebrows, smiles, etc.) can be just as bad as said.

JeffO said...

The times when non-said tags bother me are when they are either:

1. repetitive, i.e., the same 'non-said' tag is used over and over
2. overdone. I do feel 'said' should be the most commonly used tag. If you have a conversation that is he said, she responded, he interjected, she complained, he exclaimed, it's too much.
3. overly cute. Perhaps the tags aren't 'overdone' as in #2, but it's a word used in place of a tag that just feels like the author is either reaching or showing off.

Like Rachel above, I like beats, but they can be overdone, too. It's really about feel and rhythm for me.

Kimber Leigh said...

I'm not completely adverse to -ly adverbs, but when used as part of the dialogue tag it distracts me. I read the tag "he said conversationally" a few weeks ago. I stopped reading to stare at the page.

I don't think every line of dialogue needs a tag and an action. It becomes distracting. I agree with JeffO - dialogue should have an easy feel and rhythm. Too many tags and actions throw off that rhythm.

Jessica L. Brooks (coffeelvnmom) said...

See, I think that, in everything we've said here, the feel and rhythm of the book is what ultimately counts the most! :)

Katrina, I had to stop going by "rules" because I was always unhappy and finding something wrong with my stuff and it felt so unrealistic that I began to hate it. I've decided to go by my character's rules... as in, if it's their point of view and it sounds how they'd describe it, it's okay (as long as this isn't an excuse to be a lazy writer).

Off to check out Janice's post now! :)

Thanks so much for weighing in, everyone--I appreciate it!

Anonymous said...

I'm a whatever works. I, too, find the prose stiff if I avoid the saids. It needs to be broken up here and there. The asked tag is a good one too.