One of the most common pitfalls new writers struggle with is excessive use of unnecessary dialogue tags. (It's such a common problem, in fact, that we created a report just to spot them.)
What is a dialogue tag, you ask? Let’s start with a definition.
What are Dialogue Tags?
Sometimes referred to as an attribution, a dialogue tag is a phrase with a noun/pronoun and a verb that comes before, after, or in the middle of your dialogue. Here is an example:
- "Let’s go to the pool today," said mom.
In the above, "said mom" is the dialogue tag. It’s placed after the actual dialogue to tell your readers who’s talking so they don’t get confused. These tags can come before the dialogue as well:
- Sarah asked, "Where are the towels?"
Dialogue tags can also come in the middle of your dialogue:
- "It’s raining harder than ever," said Ben, "so maybe we should take a rain check."
Mistakes Newbie Writers Make with Dialogue Tags
Beyond excessive use, new writers try to get creative with their dialogue tags.
"I can’t believe you would do that," Alyssa groaned pitifully.
"I can’t believe you think it’s a problem," objected Matt forcefully.
"But it’s embarrassing," Alyssa wailed loudly.
"When did you become such a prissy girl?" Matt snarled condescendingly.
When you read the above dialogue, what do you focus on? Readers pay more attention to "creative" dialogue tags than they do to the actual dialogue. But when you use either a simple "said" or "asked," they become almost invisible to readers because they take no effort to process so readers speed right through them. They don’t draw attention to themselves, letting readers focus on the dialogue instead.
Then What’s the Best Way to Use Dialogue Tags?
Stick with a simple "said" or "asked" and use your dialogue and your characters’ actions to show readers what your characters think or feel. Let’s look at an example.
Jennifer kept her eyes pinned to the floor. "What do we do now?"
"Well," said Chris, "I guess we try to come up with a Plan B." He rubbed his brow.
"Do you think we’re making a mistake here?" She finally let her eyes meet his.
He let out a deep breath. "I think we have a mess we need to clean up."
Notice in the above example, there’s only one "said" but it’s still clear who’s talking. You also get a sense of the tension from the words the characters speak and their body language.
When you use those creative, descriptive dialogue tags newbies like, you’re telling instead of showing. And it really stands out, especially when you’re using first-person point of view, because it ends up with the narrator telling the reader what the character is feeling.
So show how your character acts and responds at the moment instead of telling. The impact is so much more powerful.
You need dialogue tags so your readers don’t lose track of who’s saying what to whom. Just remember, use "said" or "asked" to support your dialogue. Avoid creative, descriptive dialogue tags because they like to steal the show. Keep your dialogue tags simple and out of the way of the action and the dialogue. And use the Dialogue Tags report to find them before they become an issue.