I Hate Dialogue Tags

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He said, she replied, Bob yelled, etc, etc, etc. To the point where if there are more than a couple in a short story, I start to cringe. Even worse if there are adverbs involved.

There’s lots of well-meaning writing advice out there (some of it by incredibly well known and successful writers) about how dialogue tags should be invisible so you should only use ‘said’ except in extreme circumstances, that they’re only there to tell the reader who’s talking, that they help the story along.

I take a different view.

They’re more invisible if they aren’t actually there. The reader should be able to tell who’s talking by the words you’ve put around the dialogue. Rather than do anything good for the story, they’re overwriting something that should be re-written to get rid of them.

In fact, I actually think dialogue tags represent missed opportunities to communicate something about the character, the setting, the mood, etc.

An example might be a good idea:

Dana pulled back the curtains. “It’s still raining,” she said.

Yawn. Let’s start by dropping the dialogue tag:

Dana pulled back the curtains. “It’s still raining.”

Okay, still boring, but at least I’m through the sentence two words faster and didn’t have to be told Dana was talking when I already knew that. What if I’d originally written:

Dana pulled back the curtains. “It’s still raining,” she said angrily.

Yuck. What does that even mean? Is it a shout? A growl? A scream? Does it fit with the rest of the scene? It’s unspecific and, well, boring.

Well, what if we drop the tag and move the adjective?

Dana pulled back the curtains angrily. “It’s still raining.”

Same question. Okay, she’s angry. But how do you pull back the curtains angrily? What does that mean?

Mouth pressed into a thin line, Dana jerked back the curtains. “It’s still raining.”

At fourteen words, this is the longest version yet, but it hints more about Dana’s emotional state than just saying she’s angry. Even if you don’t know why she’s upset yet, you can be pretty sure it isn’t good, and she’s taking it out on the curtains. Still, this version is only okay. Well, almost.

Mouth pressed in a thin line, Dana curled her fingers into the thick orange fabric of the bedroom curtains and jerked them open to look down into the muddy yard. “It’s still raining.” Had it ever stopped?

Thirty-seven words and a whole extra sentence. But now I know that Dana isn’t just angry, she’s unhappy. I know she lives in a home with a yard and that home probably has two stories. I know that home has orange curtains in one bedroom. I don’t actually know if it’s her house yet, but I suspect it either is, or it’s somewhere she spends a lot of time. I can infer that the yard isn’t as well kept as she might like.

This, without a dialogue tag in sight, is a much better construct than what we started with, at least to my reading. (Dana pulled back the curtains. “It’s still raining,” she said.) I can start to build the scene in my mind.

Show don’t tell. That’s another old adage. Dialogue tags only tell. Show me something instead. I won’t mind the extra words if they show me something about the world the story is taking place in. They’ll probably carry me on, further into the story.

Stay safe and be well, everyone.

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