Dialog Tags that Kill Your Story

By Al Kalar

Get rid of dialog tags

I’m on a crusade to get rid of dialog tags.

“What?” you may be saying. “How can you write dialog without tags?”

Simple. Substitute action. The above sentence could have been written:

“What?” You may have dropped your jaw in shock. “How can you . . .”

Dialog tag gone.

Dialog tags are often used by lazy writers to avoid going to the trouble of doing such things. But in doing so, I think the story actually suffers for it. As I have pointed out earlier, people aren’t “talking heads”; they do things (called “business” on stage) while talking. They move about, use their hands, make facial expressions, handle “props” such as coffee cups or pencils, and scratch itches just to name a few things. When you go to the effort of describing “business”, you enrich the conversation and the character – especially if your character has some nervous habits.

Here’s an excerpt from a conversation in Al Philipson’s work in progress, God’s Assassin.

“Flying?” His eyes widened. “I thought you’d taken up another profession.”

Victoria checked her ring’s color and showed it to her father. No bugs. “I still fly enough to keep my cover intact. Actually, I’m trying to get out of the spy game.” She paused to take a sip of wine. “It’s getting too hazardous.”

“Oh, did something happen?”

“I almost got caught at the end of my last assignment. Cully saved my skin….”

Her father’s face turned ashen.

“… By the way, he sends his best.” Victoria put her glass on a side table.

“He’s a good man. I’m glad you have the sense to keep him close. Why don’t you just tell Sir Duncan you quit?”

“I tried. But he conned me into another mission.”

“I won’t ask what.” He paused. “Did you give your word?”

“I’m afraid I failed to say ‘no’ loud enough, father. Now I’m stuck with it.” Victoria stifled a yawn as her eyes grew heavy. She covered by picking up her glass from the table.

Not a dialog tag in the entire section, but you know who’s talking and what they’re doing.

Don’t use the wrong dialog tag

Sometimes you have to use a dialog tag. When there’s no way around it, there’s no harm in an occasional tag. However, don’t be so creative that you end up using a ridiculous tag. “Said” is the most invisible of the lot.

“Where did he go?” John asked.

Of course you don’t need a tag here, but I’m being lazy to point out that the question mark screams “asked”, so why repeat it? No, don’t use “inquired” instead.

Of course, you know better than to use “Tom Swifties” such as, ” ‘Fire!’ yelled Tom alarmingly.”

Exclamation points don’t need “said excitedly/alarmingly/etc.” as a modifier.

You get the point. Don’t be redundant. If you can’t write it without a dialog tag and you’re in doubt, use “said”.

Best uses for dialog tags

Sometimes you just don’t have any other way of describing an emotion without a dialog tag (but I’ll bet you can think of a way around 70% of them if you really take the time). A voice over the phone doesn’t invite visuals.

“You’ve been warned,” the voice growled menacingly.

Okay, that’s almost a Tom Swiftie, but the growl can’t be done any other way. Nor can sadness, happy chipper utterances, etc. if the character isn’t in the scene to be viewed by your point-of-view character.

In face-to-face conversations, dialog tags are almost (almost!) never needed.

Don’t overuse tags or nouns of address

If two people are talking to each other, it’s fairly easy for the reader to follow who’s speaking. An occasional reminder helps.

One thing that rarely happens in such a conversation is each character addressing the other by name, yet I’ve seen writers do that to excess just to avoid dialog tags or writing up actions. It would sound silly in a “real” conversation and its equally silly in your story.

Just stick to using “business” to help the reader keep track of the speaker (especially if they both sound the same when they talk).

Of course, if one speaker has a distinctive mode of speech, keeping them sorted out will be easier. Just don’t forget to insert enough “business” to keep the “talking heads” at bay.

Write first. Clean up afterwards

Writing is hard work and when the ideas are flowing is no time to be stopping to clean up a conversation. Go ahead and misuse your dialog tags. After you’re done, go back and rewrite your dialog to get rid of them. Do just that and nothing else. You’ll make other “passes” through your manuscript to clean up grammar and punctuation after you’ve cleaned up problems with story flow. Dialog is just another pass through the story.


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