This week’s Thursday Writing Prompt is about writing dialogue tags. You know what those are, don’t you? It’s when someone writes “he said” or “Sandy whispered” or something similar at the front or end of a piece of dialogue.
Dialogue tags are used to add emphasis or to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking. Tags can make or break your dialogue; they can facilitate understanding or they can draw so much attention to themselves that they become a joke. If you don’t use them at all, you run the risk of having your reader lose track of which character is speaking.
The trick is to balance using tags with lines of dialogue that don’t need them, and to make sure that the tags you do use are not over-the-top ridiculous. There’s a whole argument about using dialogue tags and whether you should just stick to “said” or mix it up with other verbs. Writers often get pretty hot under the collar about this one, because a lot of times it just comes down to personal preference. There are no hard-and-fast rules about using dialogue tags.
Again, it’s a matter of walking that fine line. You don’t want the tag to draw attention to itself needlessly, but there are times when repeating “said” just looks dumb and sounds dumber. Using an occasional “whispered” or “shouted” or even “said quietly” gives the reader a bit more description and feeling without you having to write tons of description.
Here’s this week’s assignment: pull out a book that you like and find some dialogue. Pick something that runs 10 lines or more, then take a sheet of paper and number it, one number for each line of dialogue. I want you to actually write the dialogue tag(s) down that the author uses. The point of this is for you to become aware of what kind of tags are actually being used. If you just read or skim the text, you’re probably not really paying much attention to them. When you’ve finished this, find a second book by another author and do the same thing.
Now that you have a couple of lists of how dialogue tags are used, change them around. If the author does not use tags, put some on. Change the wording, change the order in which the tags appear. How does it impact the dialogue overall? Is it more clear, or do the tags just get bothersome? The only way to get comfortable with dialogue tags is to use them and get a feel for what is comfortable for your story. No single approach will work for every piece of fiction, so keep an open mind.
As a general guideline, if a tag adds nothing useful to the dialogue but it draws attention to itself, it will probably bother some readers. If one of your characters in a two-person conversation uses the other one’s name, you can probably dispense with the tag because it will be clear who’s doing the talking.