Elements of Craft

Avoid Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome


"Just be like that," she pouted.

"Oh, come on," he groaned. "Not this again."

"You don't love me," she replied.

"Right," he snarled. "That's why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

"Here," she sobbed. "Just take it back. Take it."

Okay, what's wrong with our sample above (other than being melodramatic)? It's an ailment I like to call "Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome" -- the writer relies on creative tags (pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed) so the reader will know how to interpret the dialogue. What's wrong with this? Let me count the things:

  • The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
  • It is telling the reader how the words are said instead of showing.
  • If the dialogue is well-written and the accompanying action is well-chosen, it is redundant.
  • It is annoying.

Consider, instead:

Shelly's lower lip quivered. "Just be like that."

Mike rolled his eyes. "Oh, come on," he said. "Not this again."

"You don't love me."

"Right," he said. "That's why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."

"Here." She pulled off the ring and shoved it under his nose. "Just take it back," she said, her voice breaking. "Take it."

Okay, so nothing's going to help our melodrama too much, but let's still examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:

  • No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who's speaking, no law says we must use a tag.
  • Action. "Shelly's lower lip quivered" replaces "she pouted." It's more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it's showing, not telling.
  • The prosaic "said." Yes, "said" is boring. It's overused. In fact, it is so boring and overused that it's invisible. Just like "the" and "a" and "his" and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, "said" slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what's important: the action and the dialogue.
  • A combination of "said" and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the after example above.

While we are on the topic of dialogue tags, let's also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag is used (preferably "said," but an occasional "asked" or "repeated" is permitted), a comma separates the dialogue from the tag (see examples in sentences 2 and 4 above). If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it is considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such. If it is necessary to interrupt a dialogue sentence, as in the last sentence in the above example, use the tag and action, thus allowing a comma instead of a period.

Note: "I love you," she smiled, is never correct. "Smiled" cannot be a tag; it is an action. Therefore, it can be written in one of two ways: "I love you," she said and smiled. - or - "I love you." She smiled.

If your dialogue contains a question, such as: "Who are you?" he asked, it is not necessary to punctuate with a question mark and use "asked" as a tag. This is personal choice and personally, I usually use the tag.

Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Using it effectively means tagging it effectively. Read the before and after examples given here aloud. Hear the difference. Hear the redundancy. Hear the invisibility of the hardworking "said."

It will be the best friend you ever had.

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