On Dialogue

The following is a repost of Dawn Johnson’s Scribophile.com article about composing dialogue and using speech tags:

The Good, The Bad, and The Obvious

In basic terms, dialogue tags (or speech tags) are like signposts, attributing written dialogue to characters. Dialogue tags don’t need to be fancy, splashy, or self-conscious. Their primary purpose is to show which characters speak and when. The greater the number of characters involved in a scene, the more important the frequency and positioning of tags becomes.

Each tag contains at least one noun or pronoun (Carla, she, Rory and Ellen, Jets, they) and a verb indicating a way of speaking (said, asked, whispered, remarked). For example:

  • Carla said
  • Rory and Ellen asked

Tags may be extended into longer phrases describing action or context:

  • she said and wiped the dusty shelf
  • he said, looking guilty

Sometimes writers add adjectives and adverbs to tags to provide specific information about the speaker or the speech—she asked warily; he said innocently. These are called adverbial tags.At times this can be useful, a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without drawing it into a longer, descriptive sentence. As a caveat, it’s frequently suggested in writing advice columns and books that such tags be used with a careful hand; an adverb can make a tag more obvious and remind people they’re reading a story instead of experiencing it. Still, published authors use them when it fits the situation.

Consensus among professional editors and authors is that speech tags should be invisible in the prose so they don’t distract or detract from story. Invisible dialogue tags use simple verbs. It’s generally accepted and recommended that two verbs are preferred: said and asked.

On the other side of the discussion are tags called “said-bookisms.” While a reader’s eye passes over simple tags without them shouting “I’m a speech tag,” said-bookisms are more obvious. A said-bookism has the same structure as any other speech tag but uses less-common verbs, including exclaimed, pondered, bellowed, implored, bawled, hollered, suggested, noted, begged, murmured. said-bookisms might be considered melodramatic—possibly even making prose sound unprofessional. If in doubt, it may be better for a writer to skip them and let the dialogue do the talking.

Sometimes writers are tempted to use non-speech verbs in speech tags; these are also considered said-bookisms. Verbs included in this category are: laughed, hissed, nodded, belched, roared, surmised, growled, wept. Note that some of these represent animal sounds (growl, hiss, roar). When tempted to use one of these, an author might stop and ask: Can a character really hiss a line like “Stop lying, Andre”, and does it add to the dialogue to write that she did? Published writers use non-speech verbs from time to time—when you read one does it stand out to you?

Between simple tags and said-bookisms is a gray area—isn’t there always?—or class of tags I call slightly-visible or minor said-bookisms. There are times when a writer needs to be brief, yet more precise than said or asked. At these times, a slightly-visible, or minor, said-bookism can be helpful: “You’re an animal,” Val shouted. Or “You’re an animal,” Val whispered. Same dialogue, different implication entirely and more efficient than she said loudly or she said softly. Useful verbs in this category are: whispered, shouted, muttered, grunted.

To Every Tag a Purpose

Tag styles range between two extremes. There are the simple and short—he said, she asked, I whispered, they shouted—and the longer and more complex (and sometimes self-conscious or redundant)—he remarked aloud, sarcasm dripping from every word; she inquired with intensity; I said, leaning close to his ear and speaking softly; they hollered at the top of their lungs like banshees. In many cases, if a writer finds himself explaining too much in the speech tag, he should probably consider a second look at the dialogue.

Ideally, whether utilitarian or showy, tags should be designed and placed to perform one or more basic functions:

  • Identify a speaker
  • Prevent reader confusion and/or loss of interest
  • Mimic speech’s natural rhythms
  • Make long dialogue sections digestible
  • Elevate, maintain, or break tension
  • Provide opportunities to insert action or description

Say What?

Let’s consider a conversation where one character is accusing another of having an affair. Without tags the dialogue tells us one person is accused and the other hurt by the indiscretion, but which is which? A few simple, well-placed tags help readers understand not only who’s talking, but also who deserves empathy and who has earned full-on hatred. Often, in situations like this, the actual dialogue conveys the bulk of the emotion and there’s nothing for the writer to do but let the characters take each other on with the aid of a few pint-sized signposts (note: interspersed action avoids “talking-heads syndrome”).

“It didn’t mean anything,” Robert said. “She was just a fling. A ship I passed in the night.”

“A ship you boarded,” Stephanie said. “Tell me, was it a luxury cabin or more like steerage?”

“Honey, baby, it wasn’t like that. Honest.”

“Don’t call me baby, you hound.” Stephanie buttoned her sweater. “Answer my question. Luxury or steerage?”

“I met her at the Drake Hotel in the members’ bar.”

“The Drake? You picked up a hooker at the Drake? We’re barely scraping by with all my medical bills and you’re paying for a call girl?”

Richard reached for her and said, “Steph, I love—”

“Save it.” Stephanie stepped back. “Get out.”

The above shows an even-handed use of dialogue tags; an advisable practice in any type of scene even if there are more than two characters. Well-positioned tags insure that a scene’s outcome makes sense; they eliminate any opportunity for reader confusion about emotions and opinions. Common wisdom says if a reader has to backtrack a few paragraphs or pages to get the conversation straight, a writer risks the book or story being abandoned.

Just Breathe … and Move

Dialogue tags aid in mimicking speech patterns. Pages of dense, dialogue-only paragraphs do not capture the rhythms of actual speech and they tend to turn off readers. Few people talk-talk-talk in Hamlet-sized soliloquies. On the other hand, stories can rarely survive attempts to capture every hesitation, stutter, restart, and mindless bit of chit-chat heard in common conversation. Because of this, dialogue tags are just the bits to put space in speeches and make them feel real without derailing a story. Simply put, when dialogue has tags, it has rhythm (speech, tag, speech-speech-speech, tag with action, speech, speech) and the reader experiences pauses just like in actual conversation. It’s also important to consider what characters are doing during dialogue. How often do people simply talk? Rarely. Usually they’re pausing to think, drinking coffee, folding laundry, driving, scratching a knee, ruffling hair.

Sometimes characters can be preachy or just plain wordy—it’s part of who they are or how they need to be in a certain scene. In these cases, dialogue tags and accompanying action elements or descriptions make lengthy dialogue more palatable. In Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, we find the passage below. The character Jack is telling a story to Aliena. Again, the first version has no tags and breaks:

In the end, [the hero] brought home the grapevine that grew rubies, astonishing the entire court. “But the squire did not care that much for all those barons and earls. He was interested in one person only. That night, he stole into her room, evading the guards with a cunning ruse he had learned on his journey east. At last he stood beside her bed and gazed upon her face. She woke at once, but she was not afraid. The squire reached out and gently took her hand.”

And now with the tags and breaks as Follett wrote it:

In the end, [the hero] brought home the grapevine that grew rubies, astonishing the entire court. “But the squire did not care that much,” Jack said with a contemptuous snap of his fingers, “for all those barons and earls. He was interested in one person only. That night, he stole into her room, evading the guards with a cunning ruse he had learned on his journey east. At last he stood beside her bed and gazed upon her face.” Jack looked into Aliena’s eyes as he said this: “She woke at once, but she was not afraid. The squire reached out and gently took her hand.”

In the second, it’s clear the dialogue tags and descriptions work some magic in the scene:

  1. They break up Jack’s storytelling into meaningful and palatable chunks.
  2. They introduce action or mannerisms that keep a reader abreast of how this storytelling episode and the chapter containing it contribute to the fabric of the novel.
  3. They facilitate action and interaction between characters for story momentum and they develop anticipation.
  4. By going slightly beyond just the dialogue tags, Follett avoids talking-heads syndrome.

Subtext of Context

These four points lead to the last two items on our dialogue tags’ jobs list:

  • Elevate, maintain, or break tension
  • Provide opportunities to insert action or description

Dialogue tags contribute to mood and tension by describing speech delivery, and when a simple tag is paired with description or action it propels a scene: “You’re an animal,” Val said and slapped Alex’s burned cheek. Or “You’re an animal,” Val said and pulled Alex onto the bed. Again, same dialogue but wildly different meanings and situations.

Riddle: When is a dialogue tag not a dialogue tag?

Answer: When it’s an action or description tag that does the same work and a little bit more. Example: “You’re an animal!” Val pulled Alex onto the bed and ripped off his clothes. (Note: No said here, just action to identify Val as the speaker.) In this example, not only do we learn Val is speaking, but we bypass the need for said or screamed or whispered and instead learn what sort of animal Val is talking about and that she likes Alex being that way—or maybe it’s the lioness calling the lion animal. Action and description tags are separate sentences, woven between dialogue passages, that simultaneously identify the speaker and provide information essential to understanding character and/or some element of the scene.

She said or said she?

No, that’s not a tongue twister. It’s a common question about dialogue tag syntax. The truth is, both are correct, although placing the verb before the noun or pronoun (said she) is used less often today and in some circles considered archaic. It does seem to be in more general use in UK English. Which way a writer chooses may also depend on the genre or style. For instance, using “said she” in a science fiction novel would likely seem misplaced, but in a Regency romance it might be just right. Above all, a writer should strive to be consistent.


To read the full article on Scribophile, go to Scribophile.com, set-up a free member account, and visit the Academy page.

Write somethin'!