Don’t misuse – or overuse – dialogue tags

Novice writers sometimes grow bored with using the word said over and over so decide to add dialogue tags. These are words such as exclaimed and asked that let readers know that a person has spoken.

Usually replacing the word said is simply unnecessary. Most readers skim over said, which has become almost invisible word when reading. Said is sort of like the post that holds up the road sign: a post is needed – or drivers never would see the sign – but little attention is paid to it.

Replacing said actually can lead to a variety of other problems:

Redundancy
Often punctuation already says what the non-said tag informs the reader of:

“Stop him!” the agent shouted.

The exclamation point already tells readers that the agent is shouting.

Non-tags being used
The tag is intended to merely tell readers who spoke. Words like wept, chuckled, smiled, and grinned have nothing to do with speaking and even can sound silly. If you need a word like joked to indicate the meaning of the spoken words, then the dialogue probbaly need to be rewritten so that they infer the speaker’s intention.

Humorous connotation
Tags can result in a Tom Swifty, such as “We must run,” exclaimed Tom swiftly. This connotation usually occur because some action or emotion that should be inferred is stated blatantly. A better solution is to write crisp dialogue in which the reader clearly knows what emotion is intended and to show the action separate from the dialogue tag. For example, instead of writing:

“He’s dead,” Tom croaked.

Write this:

Tom’s eyes widened. “He’s…dead.”

***


If you still find that said is being used too frequently in your story, there probably are places it can be deleted rather than replacing it with a non-tag.

One such place is an exchange of dialogue between two characters. Usually after establishing who the characters are, you only need to tag every four or five lines. So instead of writing:

“We strike at dawn,” Jennings said.

Samuels nodded. “Worried?” he said.

“About winning or coming out of this alive?” Jennings said.

“Both,” Samuels said.

Jennings gazed into the dark horizon. “There’s no need to worry,” he said.

“You’re a poor liar,” Samuels said.


Write this:

“We strike at dawn,” Jennings said.

Samuels nodded. “Worried?”

“About winning or coming out of this alive?”

“Both.”

Jennings gazed into the dark horizon. “There’s no need to worry.”

“You’re a poor liar.”


In addition, if the name of the speaker appears in the sentence before the line of dialogue, the tag can be cut. That occurred in the above example above with Samuels nodded. “Worried?” he said. The he said should be deleted.