Brain Break (English Class)

Dialogue Tags: That’s What She Said

Dialogue tags are one of the most controversial "rules" of writing
Image by Bellinon from Pixabay

It’s National Book Lovers Day! And nothing says “book” like a writer. (You need both to get a reasonable result, after all) Almost every writer getting their feet wet in publishing dreams of a tome with their name on the cover. At some point in their career, they start sending out tendrils of interest, probing for help in achieving that goal. And in return? They get pummeled by “Masters” and “Authorities” with sure-fire advice on how to overhaul the problems with their work. Most of which is utter crap. The controversies pile up, leaving newbies wondering which way is up. And one of the top idiocies that drives me crazy revolves around dialogue tags. So let’s cut to the chase and resolve the matter once and for all.

The First Rule of Write Club

Everyone has a version of what Rules exist for writing. Most of them are utter garbage. (And, no, I’m not referring to English basics such as using spellcheck or remembering where your commas go) I’m talking about nonsense:

  • Never make up names (although some sci-fi writers abuse that one; if you have more than ten consonants in a row, you’re on my list)
  • Don’t kill the main character
  • Delete all adverbs
  • Only use “said” for your dialogue tags

Attempting to argue with these “brilliant” geniuses by providing examples where successful writers broke such Rules always results in the same sneering remark: You’re NOT so-and-so. Therefore, you don’t have the success/name/money/reputation to violate the sacred Rules.

What they omit is that those authors didn’t “get away with murder” because of who they were; they simply had a good reason for their actions. The Russo brothers took out HOW MANY main characters in End Game? All justified, and every death advanced a plot point. There’s nothing wrong with it.

But if you arbitrarily axe your lead and can’t GO anywhere beyond that moment, then you have a problem. No reader will feel empathy or even sympathy unless you’ve done your work and forged a connection up to that point. And you damn-well better have an exit strategy to get to the end of the book.

The so-called gurus can’t fathom that kind of work, though. So they slap up a “NO” and steer you away from a project you may excel at.

The Do’s and Don’t’s of Dialogue Tags

And that brings us to the controversial dialogue tags.

The logic behind the whole “ONLY use said” thing is that “said” fades into the background of a reader’s mind. It essentially disappears, becoming a blank. That’s a load of crap, but it SOUNDS good. And when you’re a fresh-faced, wide-eyed writer soaking up lessons like a sponge, you’re willing to believe it.

As a writer AND a reader, though, I can assure you it’s a bald-faced lie – depending on how it’s wielded.

I’ve picked up a book where EVERY. Damn. Tag. Used. “Said.” I wanted to gouge out my eyeballs. Instead of dissolving, it became more prominent, a jackhammer in the back of my brain. I jolted out of the story, trying to avoid seeing the word. Then I got bored and started making a tally of how many times it appeared (not what you want your reader to do, by the way).

On the flip side, I’ve been a beta reader for someone who used alternate tags for everything. It was creative – and hysterical. (For the record, some words should NEVER appear as a dialogue tag, and “ejaculated” is one) While the chapters didn’t assault me with monotony like the previous book, I also couldn’t take it seriously. It became a farce (NOT what the author intended)

You want a balance.

“Said” DOESN’T always work. It doesn’t convey a proper tone if your character needs to whisper, murmur, or mumble. I waver about shouting because an exclamation point DOES handle that. But screaming? Shrieking? (Crying is a grey zone)

Sure, you can throw an adverb (oh, crap! The adverbs!) in for color, but why add words if you don’t NEED to?

Omitting Dialogue Tags

What the “said” proponents fail to recognize is that a talented writer doesn’t NEED a bunch of dialogue tags. If you’re focusing on character development and your scene’s action, you can write dialogue that stands on its own. Your reader will understand who’s speaking without a problem. And they’ll even know HOW they’re speaking.

For example:

Collapsing in a fit of giggles on the bed, she covered her mouth with her hands. “That’s the most I’ve laughed in days.”

“I told you: I’m the better man in this equation.” His eyes glinted in the flickering candle.

No tags! You pull from the scene to create the tone, manner, and strength of speech. It’s a stronger method of writing, too. Because it forces you to give more consideration to the environment.

You can take the same two lines of dialogue and write them into HUNDREDS of different forms. All you have to do is change the context. Make it horror, turn it into sci-fi, or transform it so it becomes something regretful and sad. That’s how powerful words are – without pesky dialogue tags to anchor them.

Though there’s nothing wrong with sprinkling tags here and there. This is just another option to break up the flow of your story – and keep you from falling into the metronome or thesaurus traps.

Write It Your Way

I don’t follow any one pattern in what I write.

I use “said” here and there with the occasional adverb for clarity. (I’m such a rebel) I also use other dialogue tags, though I stick to more conventional labels. And I rely A LOT on the surrounding contest to carry my speeches. I feel like it flows better.

When I attempted to save a newbie writer from one of these “said” debates in a writing forum once, a puffed-up asshole informed me that I’d never get a publishing contract. He told me that major publishers would take one look at my manuscripts and reject me.

Out of spite, I ran a search on his name. He isn’t published ANYWHERE, much less with a major house.

I haven’t yet published a book, but I haven’t queried. However, I HAVE received positive rejections on my short stories using this formula from some of the biggest names in the industry. So I’m confident in what I’m doing.

The only WRONG way to write is what feels off to you. Otherwise, listen to Neil Gaiman. His rules are the only ones I’ve found worth following.

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