The Use and Abuse of Dialogue Tags

By June 12, 2019Grammar

Introduction

Dialogue tags are used in various ways and to varying degrees in fiction writing. One writer, I noticed, regarded them in a metaphorical sense as ‘seasoning’ and not ‘the main ingredient’ in writing. A dialogue tag is also called an ‘attribution’ – a small phrase that is used before, or after, or in between the dialogue. And this is important because it enables the reader to identify the speaker, which can be quite difficult if you have more than two people having a conversation. 

The said tag is probably the most common one, having the advantage of being neutral in its application. It becomes almost a silent tag, one which the reader resonates with but one that equally becomes almost invisible in its use.

At the same time, the said tag is often criticised for its overuse in fiction writing. But this isn’t the only criticism: the maxim ‘Show, don’t tell’ is not easily followed when using said bookisms.

The purpose of this post is very briefly to look at ways in which the said tag works well and where it doesn’t and to look at alternatives such as said bookisms.

The said tag for identification

Example one:

‘Hi,’ said Richard. ‘How’s it going?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jessica said.

Richard said, ‘Well, all I wanted to know is how’s the revision going?’

‘What? You must be joking!’ said Jessica sarcastically. ‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you coming with me?

As one can see, the overuse of the said tag is quite overwhelming. It becomes repetitive, stilted, and very annoying. It also takes the reader away from the point of the conversation, making them focus on the said tags. It does a disservice to the writer in trying to communicate their story because if the focus is on the said words, the point of the story is lost!

Where there are only two people having a conversation, the said tags are only necessary for identification unless there is a considerable amount of conversation taking place.

Example two:

‘Hi,’ said Richard. ‘How’s it going?’

‘What do you mean?’ Jessica said.

 ‘Well, all I wanted to know is how’s the revision going?’

 ‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you coming with me?

Here, the said tag is almost invisible in so far as it has any noticeable effect on the reader. Used sparingly and appropriately, it works well.

The use of said bookisms

A said bookism is a way of avoiding the word said in the tag. Go on the internet and you will find literally hundreds of these alternatives to the word said. It is even possible to purchase said books, hence the name said bookism.

Verbs like laughed, sighed, replied, exclaimed, and hissed will be familiar with readers as alternative ways of overcoming the repeated us of the word said. Some verbs like asked, and, to a lesser extent, replied are perfectly acceptable substitutes.

However, verbs such as laughed, shrugged, or smiled are not acceptable at all because the character cannot say these words.

Actions in place of said tags and said bookisms

Using phrases in place of said tags or said bookisms is a great way to keep the reader interested in the story and not become irritated by the way the action is spoken. Here is the same set of speech written in a different way.

Example three: Letting the action and the dialogue do the work of the said tag, where possible

Richard came bounding over to Jessica, who was on her way to the university library to revise for her sociology exam.  

‘How’s it going?’

Richard was keen to coax his friend Jessica to go into the library with him to revise for end-of-year exams.

Jessica flung her bag over her shoulder and flicked her head towards Richard, somewhat annoyed by his enthusiasm. He always studied, she thought bitterly. Richard was the college bookworm. She waited for him to come up to her.

‘Are you coming with me, then?

 ‘Where to?’  She knew that was a dumb question to ask.

‘The library, of course.’

Picking up her bags she gave Richard a cold stare.

‘Sod that! I’m going down the pub. Are you joining me?

Looking at both the above conversation, the verbs said, asked, and replied, and exclaimed could all have their place in the story, but they are not needed. The actions of the characters speak for themselves.

Example four: Focus on the action by removing the dialogue tag

In the following example, the focus is on removing unnecessary dialogue tags, which slow this part of the story down, in favour of emphasizing the action.

‘I want you to keep me company tonight,’ Max said. He kissed his girlfriend on the lips.

But better still and easier to follow:

‘I want you to keep me company tonight.’ He kissed his girlfriend on the lips.

Example five: Don’t repeat what the dialogue has just told the reader

Sam and Alice, who were engaged, were embroiled in a fierce argument about Sam messaging a girl on Facebook.

‘Who is she?’ asked Alice?’

‘Just someone I knew years ago,’ replied Sam.

‘That’s not good enough. You’re always so evasive. Tell me her name and where she lives. I’ll throttle the bitch!’ exclaimed Alice.

‘No you won’t because she’s your best mate! hissed Sam.

As can be seen, the use of each dialogue tag is completely unnecessary.

Example six: A good tag doesn’t impair how natural the speech sounds

The said word makes perfect sense when the writer wants to focus on the way a character speaks and on what he / she says without using said bookisms.

Mike forced the gun into the back of Raff as they walked into the lounge and said, ‘Ya know I’m going to shoot ya, if you so much as open that big gob of yours, don’t ya?’

‘Please, Mike, mate,’ said Raff. ‘Do I look that bleedin’ stupid?’

The said words could be replaced with said bookisms such as whispered, hissed (Mike) and spluttered, whined (Raff) but the context and the action renders such words as unnecessary.

Useful websites

https:ogue-tags-and-how-to-use-them-in-fiction-writing

http://ladyknightediting.com/said-bookism/

http://maydawney.com/blogs/blog-tag-youre-it/

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