About “Said”: What are Dialogue Tags, and How to Use Them

What Are Dialogue Tags?

Dialogue tags. We see them all the time but do we really know what their true meaning is? Well….I didn’t, so looked up the definition and here is what I found:

Dialogue Tags: A phrase that proceeds, breaks up or follows dialogue. A dialogue tag tells the reader who is talking. It shares the tone and clues on how the words are spoken.

For example:

Isabella said.

Bryan exclaimed.

Isabella laughed.

Bryan screamed.

Dialogue Tags vs Action Beats

The best way to explain is by way of example. Here is one that makes a lot of sense: 

“Thank you for listening,” Isabella said, smiling.

In this example we saw two things. One – We were told who said it, the dialogue tag and two, we saw, in words, the expression on her face.

“Thank you for listening.” Isabella smiled.

Here, we’re told one thing. That Isabella smiled. But, we can infer from the way that it’s written that she also said “thank you for listening.” That is an action beat.

How to maintain flow in your writing with dialogue tags:

I am a big believer in mixing things up. Monotonous, repetitive or bland prose can kill a good story. I like to keep it fresh. Keep the reader on edge and one of the ways in doing that is to use dialogue tags at the beginning or middle. Here’s what I mean:

Isabella sighed, “I’m worn out.”

“I’m worn out,” Isabella sighed. “Let’s stay home tonight.”

How to maintain flow in your writing with action beats:

Action beats are far more flexible. They make your story better. They allow the reader to see the scene unfold using few words.

Example: “I don’t understand you.” Isabella stepped away and forced herself to calm down. “Your mood swings confuse me.”

Action beats key on emotion. We saw how Isabella stepped away to get a better grip on her emotions before she said another word. They can anchor the dialogue and provide an alternative to a speech tag.

Warning: Be careful of repetition. 

Why are dialogue tags and action beats important for your reader?

Dialogue Tags: We need to know who’s talking.

Action Beats: They make the story flow. The reader feels and cares about the people in it. Or sometimes they hate them. In other words: Emotions are through the roof.

By combining the two, the reader feels and cares without getting an overload of information or too much repetition. They are not only observing, they are part of the adventure. Once the reader is emotionally involved the writer has succeeded.

The Problem with Over-and Under-Using Dialogue Tags

Repetition is the death of a good story. This is where an editor and beta reader are important. Sometimes a writer is the last to know if something is overused. In this is so often the word said. Listen to those around you if they point out said was used a thousand times too many. You will thank them for it.

There is a school of thought that says “said” should be the only dialogue tag that’s used. That other dialogue tags (like: exclaimed, answered, questioned, etc) take the reader away from the story.

Some people are by the book. They believe rules should be followed without question. Thankfully I am not one of those and neither are you. Mix it up. Don’t be afraid to make your own rules. Take chances. That’s where the fun starts.

There’s an old saying – Variety is the spice of life. I am a firm believer in that old saying. Variety moves the story forward. It adds excitement. But most of all, variety makes the reader turn the page and that is the goal of every writer.

Caution: the over-use of dialogue tags gets boring. Boring is bad. Really bad. One person out of a hundred will read a boring story. Rumor has it, they’re boring too. If your book is full of too many dialogue tags, your reader will get tired of reading “he said”, “she said”, and switch off. Your reader isn’t stupid: give them credit when it’s already clear who’s talking.

However… I’m reading a book right now. It’s entertaining. It makes me laugh. It’s one of those books I return to every now and then. But the writer has a habit of having an entire page consist of nothing but dialogue. Maybe he does this on purpose. I think he does.

Whatever the case, I am constantly losing track of who is doing the talking. It throws me off and I hate it. But he gets away with it because I am a fan. But a new writer doesn’t have a lot of fans which means they are not going to get away with it. They will lose readers and their book will fail. So… find a balance, and make sure  the reader knows who is talking. 

Using Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

“Don’t let the cat out,” Isabella said hurriedly.

“I love you, too,” Isabella said adoringly.

The dreaded ‘ly’ word. In my opinion, adverbs tell us how to react instead of allowing us to draw our own conclusions. I’m guilty of using them and I know you are too. But it doesn’t mean we are bad writers. Sometimes mistakes happen. But when a writer tells the reader how Isabella reacted the entire moment is weakened. A special moment where we finally get to see her express her feelings are watered down by one single word.

Side note: Sometimes adverbs work. But that’s for another place and time. 

Character Development

We can learn a lot about a character from a single word. That’s the power and beauty of what we do. Let’s say we have a shy person. Throughout the story his dialogue tab consists of the words whispered, muttered, hesitated, etc. We get to know him and his habits by a single word in a dialogue tag. When used consistently and effectively a character’s true self is revealed. But remember: use them with caution.

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