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Some Rules Are Meant To Be Broken

dialogue tags can ruin a story

One of my pet peeves as a reader is the overuse of dialogue tags. I find unnecessary dialogue tags to be awkward and clunky. They slow the natural flow of the conversation and past a certain point, the technique begins to insult my intelligence.

It is a rule in writing that all dialogue should have tags either before or after someone speaks. Because it is a rule, we are supposed to follow it whether it makes sense or not. It can get quite annoying and writers struggle to find new ways to deal with dialogue while still following the rules.

Many authors get creative and try to dress up tags in an effort to make them less boring and repetitive. That’s why we see things like this:

When speaking, we find Bill has cried, sighed or snorted the words. At other times, he’s bellowed, howled and wheezed. Bill has even been heard to have chortled words as authors try to take the pain out of dialogue tags.

In journalism school writers are taught there are only two words they should use with dialogue: said and asked. After all, a news report should contain just the facts. No need to dress it up.

Let’s See How This Works

Let’s say there are two characters in the scene, Bill and Jane. It’s early morning and Jane has just made a pot of coffee.

“Would you like toast and coffee,” Jane asked.

“I’d love toast and coffee,” Bill said.

Jane asked, “Do you take cream and sugar?”

“No thanks, I take my coffee black, “ Bill said.

“Plain or buttered toast?” Jane asked.

“Buttered please,” said Bill.

 

I’ll keep this short because it’s already enough to make a point. Imagine a book that has a fair amount of dialogue and you can see why writers start to change it up by saying Bill wheezed or he snorted.

So let’s change it up and see if it helps:

“Would you like toast and coffee,” Jane asked.

“I’d love toast and coffee,” Bill replied.

Jane cooed, “Do you take cream and sugar?”

“No thanks, I take my coffee black, “ whispered Bill.

“Plain or buttered toast?” Jane fussed.

“Buttered please,” Bill laughed.

 

There are a ton of options when it comes to changing it up, but we end up in the same place. The tags become more and more annoying as the amount of dialogue increases on the page. They also add detail that may or may not fit the story.

Personally, I find unnecessary dialogue tags to be awkward and clunky. Past a certain point, the technique begins to insult my intelligence. I don’t need to be told who is talking at each line. It feels like the writer is writing for a child or a halfwit.

Sometimes Less Is More

Let’s try it with just an introductory tag and see how it works:

Again, we’ve already been told that there are only two characters in the scene, Bill and Jane. It’s early morning and Jane has just made a pot of coffee.

“Would you like toast and coffee,” Jane asked.

“I’d love toast and coffee.”

“Do you take cream and sugar?”

“No thanks, I take my coffee black.”

“Plain or buttered toast?”

“Buttered please.”

Doesn’t that flow better? Was it hard to follow? Are you offended because I omitted the dialogue tags?

The Grammar Police

There is no doubt that some will be offended by the lack of language tags just as I am bored to tears when I am faced with page after page of dialogue where characters said, asked, clucked, chuckled, bustled and flapped etc.

I think you can guess which technique I use in my books. It’s a fact of life that you can’t please everyone and I’m banking on the idea that there will be more people who enjoy the cleaner writing style.

How do you feel about language tags? Do you agree this a case where less is more?

 

Comments 16

  1. Great info. I had a recent post recommending authors invest in editing. Good to see someone offering the service at more affordable rates.

  2. I guess authors do what comes naturally to them, but they have to take on board their readers, who probably don’t want to be overwhelmed with over used punctuation, as mentioned before dialogue has to flow.

  3. I’ve not used dialogue tags as much in Evo. With just two people, it isn’t always necessary. In the more complex scenes, even then as long as the reader can put two and two together to know who says what, it’s still possible not to have to tag each line. Indeed, I’ve taken to action tags to omit the he said, she said saga and so far on the read through it seems to work. I’m sure Kelly will put me right though ☺️.
    Great article, Robert. Well explained.

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      Author

      Thanks Ian and glad to hear you’re of the same mind. We take a bit of a risk because some readers will assume we don’t know how to write dialogue properly, but once the reader knows we are doing this intentionally, I think most will enjoy the more natural flow of conversation.

      Kelly is probably stocking up on aspirin as she reads this :)

  4. BTW, I do agree with you; fiction should be bound by one rule only: can the reader follow it? If you break that one it’s on you. Otherwise, go nuts. Have fun, develop a whole new style. If the story’s good enough people will read it regardless of how well you use dialog tags or semi-colons.

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      Author
  5. My only problem with untagged dialogue is you wind up with this wall of dialogue where you’ve got nothing more than talking heads. It gets really tricky with multiple conversants in the scene, too. Dialogue should be at the forefront of the whole “show don’t tell” movement, but it can go overboard. As long as it’s clear who’s saying what, that’s a great start, but outside of Greek tragedy no one just stands around talking. They’re always fiddling with their hands or looking around or staring at the waitress. I guess those are the action tags at work.

    1. Post
      Author

      This rarely works when there are more than two people. When three or more people are in the scene you usually have to use tags or action beats so the scene makes sense, unless it is clear who is talking.

      I also use dialogue to move the story forward. It’s what we do in real life so why not use it in writing :)

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      Author
  6. Great article Robert, and I agree on all you’ve said. In recent times I’ve worked hard to produce more of the style you’ve mentioned.
    I also feed in action beats, and I try to fit in action/dialogue combinations, but not too often, because then we end up back where you’ve pointed out – confusing the reader.
    My favourite ‘tag’ technique of late is to use a dialogue/tag sandwich.
    “I could do with a dialogue sandwich,” Gary said. “Slip it into a couple of slices of speech, please.”
    Neat write-up with good examples.

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      Author

      Thanks Tom. I think it is important for the story to flow in a natural way for the reader. Anything we do that helps ‘keep the pages turning’ is a useful technique and in my mind, more important than being technically correct.

  7. Good article, Robert. Dialogue tags can be interesting. Yes, said and asked might being to feel boring to a writer, but as your short example pointed out, being adventurous with dialogue tags can cause even more issues.

    I believe rules are made to be broken when it comes to writing rules. It’s also about balance. In your example, it is clear who the speakers are and which line belongs to which person. I don’t believe it is necessary to provide a dialogue tag with every line of dialogue.

    Another option is to use an action beat. Instead of Jane said or asked after her line of dialogue, maybe we have Jane poured the coffee. What are your thoughts about using action beats to help clarify whom the speaker is as opposed to using a dialogue tag?

    1. I like action beats and I use them a lot Kelly. They move the action along and I find it natural way to tell a story.

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