Dialogue Tags

I had my first piece of fiction critiqued on Scribophile this week. I was surprisingly pleased at how kind people were with the majority of their comments and the criticisms pointed out were constructive and useful. I think I’m going to like Scribophile: productive feedback is just what I need right now to improve my writing skills, and this is exactly what the community is designed for. 

One of the idiosyncrasies of my writing that has been brought to my attention is my use of dialogue tags. Since someone highlighted that I tended not to use ‘said’ in my short story, I’ve been noticing my distaste of this description elsewhere. I tend to use other verbs to denote how my characters say something. This isn’t out of some need to demonstrate how wonderful my writing is – according to various sources of writing advice over use of other verbs instead of ‘said’ tend to highlight the writer as an amateur, looking to impress. 

I’ve never really noticed this issue with my dialogue before, but now that it’s been mentioned once I have an eye for it, and they are right: rarely does the word ‘said’ appear in my dialogue. This isn’t intentional – I tend to utilise as much vocabulary as I can when I write and therefore seldom struggle to find the word I am looking for to describe the scenes in my mind. However, I’m not sure if this distance I’ve created between my dialogue and ‘said’ is a positive or negative influence. I understand how it might appear to others, but when I write it sounds right. 

Typical examples of verbs that I use in place of said include: ask, respond, reply, mutter, mumble, scream, yell…All of which are typical suggestions of what not to use. However, I only use dialogue tags as a whole sparingly. More common in my writing of conversations are moments of action to accompany the speech – thereby identifying the speaker. 

Here’s an example: 

“Are you allowed to come for tea?”

Madeline looked up, startled by my voice in her usually solitary thoughts.

“Oh,” she replied, “Yes, yes I am.” Madeline fidgeted in her seat. “As long as my Dad isn’t working the late shift and can come and pick me up.”

I tilted my head slightly, pondering her words.

“I thought you said he worked almost every weekend?”

Madeline nodded, with no expression for me to read. It was a no then.

“Oh.”

I was disappointed. I had been looking forward to showcasing Madeline to my family, especially my older brother Eric. I had a suspicion that his sarcastic comments would retrieve equally smart remarks from sharp-tongued Madeline. It would be nice to hear Eric flounder for once, like I usually did.

“So you don’t think you’ll make it?”

Madeline remained stoic, shrugging her shoulders in mute response.

“Do you still want to come?”

My mouth was dry in anticipation of the answer. I had no doubt that she wouldn’t hesitate to lie in order to spare my feelings. So as I awaited her response it felt like a lifetime.

“I do,” she said, jumping up from her seat. She walked over to me and leant against the table. “But if my Dad can’t pick me up I can’t come.”

I pouted.

“Well, maybe my Dad could drop you off instead.”

I said it without really thinking. It would take a lot of cajoling to convince my Dad, he didn’t appreciate being a taxi service at the best of times.

“He would?”

Madeline perked up immediately, standing straight with a casual flick of her hair.

I shrugged. “Maybe.” I didn’t want to promise something only for us both to be disappointed. “I’ll ask him tonight.”

“Okay.” She gave a finite nod and began strolling back across the abandoned playing field, head down, eyes scanning the ground. I stayed in my seat, not really in the mood for searching for those lost objects to be found.

Extract from ‘That which is left is lost’ (Draft)

I chose this example because it has one of the rare instances I actually use ‘said’. However, throughout the whole of the conversation my only other use of dialogue tags consists of ‘replied’ near the beginning. While I might utilise a lot of various dialogue tags, I’m not sure if I should be concerned about it if they appear so infrequently in my text.

Still, it is something to keep an eye on, especially if I have a more complex exchange between a group of people. The critique of my writing is currently limited to one piece on Scribophile, but I can already tell that it is going to identify some  interesting analysis of my writing. 

For more discussion on Dialogue and the use of tags, check out these sources:

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5 responses to “Dialogue Tags

  1. If most of your dialogue is written out similarly to this, I wouldn’t worry about your under use of the word “said”. Your writing has a nice flow to it, and because of the descriptions it’s easy to follow who’s talking when. It would be interesting to see how the dynamics of it change when you have three or more characters talking, in which case the need for tags is increased.

    Although, I might be a bit jaded when it comes to this particular topic. I don’t use the word “said” very much either if I can help it. There’s quotation marks. Of course someone said something. I don’t need to put the word “said” attached to a character after each instance.

    Another piece of advice would be to look at your favorite published work, find a couple scenes with dialogue and see who often the author uses dialogue tags. It might be surprising research. In fact, I think I’m going to do that myself. I can’t imagine it being used as often as people think.

    • Thank you for your comments – and your kind words about my writing.

      I like your direct interpretation of there being speech marks, thus someone has spoken. I honestly don’t think that I pay much attention to dialogue tags even when they do appear in writing because of this.

      Good advice on the published work front – I’ll keep an eye for it in the book I’m currently reading. Could make for some interesting thoughts.

      Good Luck with your NaNo struggles: I’ve just followed your blog to keep up with your progress. So, now no excuses: I’m watching!

      Take Care, Cat

      • Ha! I need all the monitoring I can get. The Fourth of July holiday set me waaaaay back. I was already adjusting word count so I wouldn’t have to write on weekends, now I have to adjust for taking two days off besides. Speaking of which, back to the writing board I go.

  2. I don’t use very many dialogue tags either, and when I do, I invariably use ‘said’. I’ve found that if I’ve adequately illustrated that a character is upset (for example) then I don’t need a descriptive tag (e.g. “she blubbed”). Or at least I think I don’t. Maybe I’m not describing things very well and as a result my characters are stiff and unfeeling with stilted dialogue….. I know how to fix that, make all my characters robots!

    • It’s interesting, isn’t it – how much we write on automatic pilot or a natural sense?
      I agree with your point though: if you’re writing well your characters’ emotions should be expressed in things other than a dialogue tag. Good point. 🙂

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