Whose Line is it Anyway? Dialogue Tags

Dialogue Tags vs. Action Beats: The Great Showdown

He said, she said, they said, we all said. Especially in fiction, there is a lot of saying going on. Good dialogue can save you from telling, can demonstrate everything about your character’s personality and traits, can be funny, move the plot along, or explain backstory. All at the same time. Dialogue is the best!

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SO much going on here! Movies get lots to work with because they’re visual. Authors have to work HARDER to get all of it across with dialogue and action beats.

Dialogue is also a trap. A big fat Sarlacc pit waiting in the middle of the WIP desert to digest you slowly. One of the oh-so-easy ways to go wrong here is when you get caught in the web of dialogue tags. While you struggle amongst the strands of endless options, growing weaker as you wait for the vicious sting, action beats are standing at a safe distance yelling, “Use me! I’m here! Hello? I’m showing, not telling!”

Learn to love action in your dialogue. Learn to hate the overuse of dialogue tags. We are writing fiction, my lovelies. Pretty much anything goes, as long as the dialogue flows.

So. What are dialogue tags? Make with the clicks to read this good succinct post on the basics, by The Creative Penn. To narrow it down to a sentence; dialogue tags are anything tagged on to the end of dialogue to indicate that person is speaking.

Most of the time your characters say something, it will be said. It can also be begged, shouted, screamed, hissed, whispered, called, snarled, cried, replied, implored, protested, and any other of a million different ways to indicate emotion while talking. Available advice, which is based on solid evidence, opines that you should use “said” most of  the time. It’s an invisible word to readers. They take it as granted that your characters will be saying something and skim right over that word, leaving the actions and the emotions to impress in the memory. “Said” is a good tag to use, especially when you want to focus on showing.

To back that up, here is a post on keeping it simple from Writer’s Digest. But! (There is definitely a but.) You can’t use “said” in every damn sentence. There’s simple, and then there’s mind-numbingly boring. It’s a good idea to kick that boring “said” up a notch with any of the other tags that express what your characters are going through. For example, use said for two tags and then add in another -ed word. Then back to said for a couple more, then a reaction -ed. Vary it up.

An even better way to include some good showing? Action.

C.S. Larkin has a good post on this over at Live Write Thrive. Action beats (also called narrative beats) are a great way to fill the empty space left around boring repetitions of “said” or “replied”. They make your writing visual, a scene playing out in the front of your reader’s mind. You can’t replace dialogue tags entirely, that would get really confusing as to who is speaking. But you can sprinkle them generously throughout the scene and they do a lot of different things for you.

While your characters are talking, how are they feeling? Add that in to your dialogue with some action tags as they react to what’s being said.

What are they thinking? Change their expressions as they listen.

Where are they? Add that in as they interact with their environment by moving, sitting, standing, touching things, picking them up or throwing them. All of those are action tags.

We’ll finish off with some examples of this from popular authors:

“Are you really Harry Potter?” Ron blurted out.

Harry nodded.

“Oh-well, I thought it might be one of Fred and George’s jokes,” said Ron. “And have you really got–you know . . .” He pointed at Harry’s forehead.

Harry pulled back his bangs to show the lightning scar. Ron stared. 

“So that’s where You-Know-Who–?”

“Yes,” said Harry. “But I can’t remember it.”

–Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, J.K. Rowling.

J.K. uses a lot of -ed dialogue tags in her writing. That’s her personal style. But in this scene we also see action, and two uses of “said.” From this first conversation with Ron we also get a good sense of his personality (he speaks without thinking and can be tactless sometimes.)

“Now I want to make love with you more than I want to go on breathing.”

“To make love,” C.C. repeated steadily. “But you don’t love me.”

“I don’t know anything about love. I care for you.” He walked back to touch a hand to her face. “Maybe that could be enough.”

She studied him, realizing he didn’t have any idea that he was breaking an already shattered heart. “It might be, for a day or a week or a month. But you were right about me, Trent. I expect more. I deserve more.”

–Courting Catherine, Nora Roberts

In this emotionally charged scene the main characters are at an impasse. One is in love, one thinks love is something to sell greeting cards and refuses to trust enough to try. All of that is obvious from their words and actions. And the word “said” isn’t used once. Nora Roberts is a great resource to study if you’d like to see how this is done.

Good luck with your dialogue! I hope this post has enough resources to get you well on your way.

 

Featured image via stocksnap.io and Alisa Anton

3 thoughts on “Whose Line is it Anyway? Dialogue Tags

  1. Nice post; I especially enjoyed how different the examples you used were!
    The way I learned how to write dialogue and action beats was taking part in theater in High School. The conversation’s there on the page, but it’s the corresponding actions that makes it interesting, especially when different actors utilize the same words so differently. (My favorite example: how different acting troupes choose to portray Hamlet, their tones and actions determining if he’s mad or just pretending to be.) Otherwise, just watching two characters stand and talk is too boring for the audience.

    1. Theater sounds like it would be an amazing resource. You pretty much have to stage direct your entire novel and for sure if you just have people standing around talking your novel will be super boring. I like that. It’s a great excuse to go watch a play and observe how they work the action into the dialogue!

  2. Adding a bit of action/reaction to a dialogue exchange can also avoid a situation in which the setting falls away from the characters until they might as well be having the conversation floating in a featureless white mist of unreality. Good post, and great examples. Thanks for sharing.

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