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.
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
- It is telling the reader how the words are said instead
- If the dialogue is well-written and the accompanying action
is well-chosen, it is redundant.
- It is annoying.
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."
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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