Says The Editor: Dialogue Tags

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Take a good hard look at your dialogue tags. They’ve been a raging inferno of opinions for many, many years now. Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade that it’s better to tell us that Johnny exclaimed, rather than show it. Or, let me put it this way: Probably as long as kids were taught in third grade to both show Johnny’s exclamation AND show it via word choice and exclamation point.

I’m thinking about this because I read a book a bit ago that made me cringe almost the entire way through it. Almost every single attribution — a fancy word for dialogue tag — was something fancy, some word that told us what was going on, even if it had been clearly shown via dialogue and punctuation. And context. In that book, I even came across my all-time favorite, “Shit!” he swore.

People.

Dialogue tags exist for many reasons. Only ONE of those reasons is to let you know how the speaker delivers his or her words.

Sometimes, tags call attention to themselves, and that’s bad. Words shouldn’t call attention to themselves. Not words on their own. It’s the pictures the words create, the mental images, the impressions, the emotions. Words are supposed to cooperate and paint pictures. They’re not supposed to be all grabby, demanding of the reader’s attention and praise. “You’re such a pretty word — who says that? Seriously?

But when you get Jennifer clutched her clenched fists to her chest and jumped up and down, her eyes sparkling and her cheeks flushed. Her cheerleader’s skirt wiggled with her excitement. “Jason, that is so super-duper!” she emoted, well, yeah. That’s overkill. All that imagery… it vanishes, swallowed whole by that one word, emoted.

And that book I was reading? Full of words like that. Weird words, like the author had raided a thesaurus in order to sound fancy and smart.

Truly, using said is sometimes, often, your best choice. It’s unobtrusive. It can remind us who is speaking. It can slow the pace of two people talking, buy the reader time to digest or catch his or her breath. It can let us focus on the other words around it, thereby contributing to that painting that the best writing plants squarely in the reader’s imagination.

And yes, more often than not, we say things. We don’t emote, yell, scream, bellow, holler, grate.

I get that the authors are striving to be great writers. But the thing about great writing is that it doesn’t call attention to itself. Like this, from my buddy Michelle Hazen:

My eyes are as round as greedy gold coins. I have no idea why he just told me that, and I don’t care. I want that collection, want to shoot it into my veins and roll naked in it and drown in the gorgeous, classic sound of song after song brought to life by the needle of my beloved antique turntable.” (A Cruel Kind of Beautiful, Chapter 6)

Yeah, there’s no dialogue in there. But that’s not the point, believe it or not. The point is that this beautiful writing. It evokes.

Your dialogue tags need to work with beautiful prose like this, not against it. Your dialogue tags need to complete a multitude (okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration) of tasks. Don’t burden them with the sort of action that ultimately undermines your book.

If you need help with this, holler. Sometimes, dialogue tags toe a fine line. But most of the time, remember: simpler is better.

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2 Comments

  1. Gina

    January 26, 2018 12:01 pm

    But where does this leave the Tom Swiftlys?

    • Susan

      January 26, 2018 12:13 pm

      That’s a whole different blog post… but suffice it to say I spend a lot of time marking those damn adverbs for deletion.

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