Playing Tag with Dialogue

Dialogue tags, or attributions, tell the reader who’s speaking. The default setting is he said/she said. Easy, right? Nice and straightforward, nothing complicated. It’s practically invisible, until the author throws forty-seven of them into one page. Some authors feel an overwhelming urge to spice things up and get creative; they want to make sure the reader really understands the dialogue and accompanying emotion. They bombard us with synonyms and avoid he said/she said as if they were fatal diseases.

I’m reading a novel by a popular author, and came under an assault that very nearly made me put the book down. (Curiosity prompts me to continue.) A scene between two characters went something like this:

“I don’t care where they came from,” John pointed out dryly. 

“I think you should,” James responded impatiently. 

 “They’ll all be dead soon, anyway,” John snapped. 

“Think of the damage they will cause before then,” James replied with condescending mildness. “They can be quite subtle.” 

“It’s contained. Damage will be minimal,” John answered. 

“You hope so,” James returned. 

“You worry too much,” John replied impatiently.

There were a few more sentences involved, but these synonyms (complete with accompanying adverbs) peppered one entire page on my eReader and didn’t stop there. The problem is that the author is trying to make sure the reader gets what’s going on by describing the dialogue, and doubles the offense by explaining how it was said. Nowhere in this passage did the two characters act.

In a two-person dialogue scene, you don’t generally need attributions at all except as occasional reminders. An action tag can give dialogue—and characterization—a significant boost and lend tension to a scene. Let’s see how things could have gone with John and James:

“I don’t care where they came from.” John didn’t look up from the papers in his hand.  

“I think you should.”

“They’ll all be dead soon, anyway.” He shoved the sheaf into a drawer and shut it. Hard.

“Think of the damage they will cause before then.” James kept his voice quiet, the way he always did when he knew he was right. “They can be quite subtle.”

“It’s contained. Damage will be minimal.” It took an effort to keep his temper. His hands trembled.

“You hope so.”

The soft warning sent a chill up his spine. Maybe there was more to this situation than met the eye. He didn’t want to believe it. Wouldn’t. “You worry too much.” 

Another sign of dialogue insecurity is too many direct references. We got a little taste of that in the first example, where the author labeled each and every line with a name. Another way to do it is by having the characters repeatedly addressing each other:

“Someone has to worry, John. Someone has to mind the details.” 

“Are you saying I don’t, James?”

“I’m saying you see the world through a fog of butterflies and rainbows, John.”

“Well, that’s a fine way to talk to a friend, James.” 

When was the last time you had a conversation like that? Probably never. Occasionally we use a person’s name when we speak to him, and usually it’s an expression of affection. (Or fury!) The same thing applies in fictional dialogue. Constant use of direct references is awkward and artificial. Worse, the reader can easily see the author’s unwelcome hand busy at work. Trust the reader to understand the clues you give him: the change of paragraph, the subtle attributions (he said/she said), the style of speech, and the substance of the dialogue itself.

Lastly, remember that action tags are not dialogue tags. For instance, people can’t smile words, which seems to be a very popular trend. I have, I hate to admit, fallen occasionally into that puddle. Thank goodness for the Magical Pen of Editing! You can combine an action with said, or you can make the action stand on its own with the use of a comma. This:

“You take such good care of me, James,” he said, and smiled.

Never this:

 “You take such good care of me, James,” he smiled.

What are some of your favorite dialogue-writing tips?

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P.S. I’d like to take this moment to insert a shameless plug. I am celebrating the print release of my novel, As the Crow Flies, with a blog tour in early June. There will be a giveaway! If you can donate a spot on your blog, please sign up here: As the Crow Flies Blog Tour. Your tweets and Facebook announcements are also much appreciated!

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