Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Dialogue tags and the authors who love them

More and more often lately, I'm coming across the notion from authors and editors that ALL dialogue tags are bad and should be eliminated entirely from manuscripts. I disagree with this. Certainly the overuse of dialogue tags is a sign of amateurish writing. New writers tend to write scenes like this:

"I don't think you should be here," she sniffed haughtily.
"I couldn't care less what you think," he growled savagely.
"Well, I want you out of this room!" she snapped.

But just because dialogue tags (and the adverbs that often accompany them) can be overused, doesn't mean they're all bad. I don't like long scenes full of dialogue with no tags whatsoever-- to me they read too much like a script, rather than a novel. They also tend to be confusing if you don't read very carefully. Here's the scene above with no tags:

"I don't think you should be here."
"I couldn't care less what you think."
"Well, I want you out of this room!"

Let's face it, too much of that is confusing, particularly if you have more than two characters talking. Janet Evanovich writes pages and pages like this, and I sometimes find it hard to follow.

And action tags are fine, but they can be overused. For those of you who aren't sure what I mean, here's the scene above rewritten with action tags:

"I don't think you should be here." She slammed her eyeshadow onto the bathroom counter and spun to face him.
A wry half smile lifted one side of his mouth. "I couldn't care less what you think."
She jumped to her feet and stalked toward him. "Well, I want you out of this room!"

Okay, that's a lot better (I did move the tags around a bit). We can see what our characters are doing, and their actions give us a clue into their feelings without overwritten dialogue tags like "he growled savagely." This is showing rather than telling, and that's what we as writers endeavor to do. Even so, a whole book of this would feel repetitious to me.

I strive to avoid repetition in my writing, and that means repetition of sentence structure and paragraph structure as well as overuse of words. If you use nothing but untagged dialogue and action tags, there will be a certain sameness to your manuscript. Some authors do this very well, but I don't think it necessarily follows that we should ALL write that way.

Ideally, I like to mix untagged dialogue, action tags, and dialogue tags. Over the course of a manuscript, I use all three, like this:

"I don't think you should be here." She slammed her eyeshadow onto the bathroom counter and spun to face him.
A wry half smile lifted the corner of his mouth. "I couldn't care less what you think," he answered.
She jumped to her feet and stalked toward him. "Well, I want you out of this room!"
He stood his ground. "No."
"Get out!"
That mocking smile grew wider. "No," he repeated. "I'm not going anywhere."

This obviously isn't great writing (I managed to get my favorite and most overused word, "wry," in there!), but I hope it conveys what I'm trying to show. Dialogue tags are not evil. Yes, they are frequently overused (and so are the adverbs that tend to accompany them). Like many other aspects of writing, they can be beaten into the ground by amateurish excess, but that doesn't mean you should shun them entirely. Don't fear them... just don't overuse them. There's nothing innately wrong with dialogue tags, and they can help make your writing less repetitive if used for emphasis and variety.


  1. I love them. And the adverbs they rode in on. *g* Good explanation, Ellen. Bare dialog is very, very hard to follow IMO. I much prefer dialog/action tags to give me some description so I can picture what they're doing and how they're reacting to each other while they talk. - Charlene

  2. had to step in here and give a *snort* at Charli.

    I like dialogue and action tags as well. I agree with what you and Charli both said. It's hard to get the sense of a conversation if there are no dialogue tags. So much of communication is actually in the nuances and the non-verbal- not just the words themselves. How do you communicate that in writing without dialogue and action tags?

    That's why the 'net is so difficult sometimes, people put their own non-verbals/nuances on your words and end up interpreting them much diferently than you intended. Maybe we should all have to include dialogue tags. Angie made the statement in a wry tone, with one eyebrow quirked.


  3. Angie said "wry"! And I think it oughta go "she said quirkily" *runs and hides* - Charlene

  4. lmao Charli. Aren't you clever?

    And yes, I used wry just for Ellen ;)

  5. I'm chuckling wryly at both of you:-).

  6. My word for it is that "jerky" writing style, referring to my eyes hopping back and forth. It gives me a head ache. Literally. Maybe I need bifocals? LOL!

  7. I love action tags.

    A LOT.

    "Maybe not as much as I love commas or the word 'that', but a lot." Shannon stood and began pacing in front of her computer. "Maybe I should cut back on them."

  8. Nah, Shannon, I think action tags are the best way of setting off dialogue, personally. I'm just saying they're not ALWAYS the best choice, and that dialogue tags are okay, too. I just think the poor little dialogue tag is being unfairly maligned in some quarters:-).

  9. I agree with you, Elly! I think they are needed but overuse can pull you right out of the story. With the number of characters that I tend to have in a book it would be a nightmare without any.

    *shudders to think of it*