Monday, August 6, 2012

Dialog Tag Wars

In January, I did a post about how to avoid the common mistakes in dialog. You can check it out right HERE. Since then, I have received several questions via email about dialog tags. It seems to be a hot button for many writers.

I spent a vast majority of my writing career editing, and I have seen my share of great and not-so-great ways to use dialog tags. Overall, it's all about balance. If you put a bunch of descriptive dialog tags in your writing, it becomes a major distraction.

If you get any one thing from this post, it's this: there is nothing wrong with the word SAID.

SAID is a great way to tag dialog. It's practically invisible and readers fly right over it without thinking twice. Using "said" helps your writing flow, and without consciously knowing it, readers appreciate it when writers use "said." It allows the reader to concentrate on the dialog and action of your story instead of trying to interpret cutsey tags.

Here's a couple examples of using descriptive dialog tags:

"You will die," he seethed.

"I quit," she sobbed. "Leave me alone."

"Oh please," he groaned.

What's wrong with these dialog tags? They actually don't make sense. Go ahead and groan. Did you actually groan any words? Try seething. How do you seethe words at all? Get rid of these. They are one of the first signs of amateur writing. Use of these descriptive tags is TELLING instead of SHOWING.

My favorite list of stupid dialog tags also include: hissed, spat, gasped, cajoled, snorted, moaned, and ejaculated.

Yes, ejaculated.

So how can you show description and not use these goofy dialog tags? You can do a number of different things:

1) Drop the tag. If there's two people talking and it's obvious who's speaking, you don't always need dialog tags after every single block of dialog.

2) Use action. Example: His eyes narrowed. "You will die." BE CAREFUL! If you litter your dialog with all kinds of action, your book will read like stage direction for a play. I've made that mistake too many times to count. Action tags, if used properly, can be powerful. They can not only help the reader understand who's talking and show what's happening, they can give the reader some insight into your characters.

3) Use "said." It's tried and true. "Asked" is another great dialog tag that readers don't stumble over.

4) Use "said" with a little action. Example: "Oh please," he said with an exaggerated roll of his eyes.

What about alternative dialog tags?

These include: whispered, admitted, yelled, shouted, taunted, suggested, confessed, noted, examined, concluded, retorted, argued, questioned, offered, advised, etc.

Use these sparingly. They're not bad at all, and once in a while, it's good to put one in just to change things up a little. But just make sure it's not redundant.

Example: "I suggest you wear the blue one," he suggested.
Example: "Watch out for the tornado coming your way!" he screamed.

Both of these examples show redundancy. So tread carefully when using alternative tags.

And if you use the word "ejaculated" as a dialog tag, I will hunt you down and burn your manuscript.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I promise I will never use that word as a dialogue tag!
I've finally hit a comfortable rhythm where I use 'said' ninety-nine percent of the time and I'm fine with it. (When I'm not skipping the tag.)

Kelley Lynn said...

When I started out I thought I was so cool using a variety of these tags. Now I have come to learn I was an idiot. :) But at least there were people like you who helped point it out :)

Laura Eno said...

ROFL! I swear, I will never use that word as a tag.
I do think people can hiss though. I think of that as an angry whisper.

Julie Dao said...

HAHAHA! Yes, I was guilty of using these tags when I first started writing, but nowadays I stick to "said" and "asked" and "replied."

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

Patrick Dilloway's characters in his Scarlet Knight book are always hissing. At least in the version I saw. I tried to ax them out of the narrative.

David P. King said...

Oh man. This is great, Jay. And I know I'm guilty of descriptive tags, even if used sparingly. :)

Leigha David said...

Love the post! I've just recently started edits so I'm going to make sure I cut out all the unnecessary tags! :)

Jay Noel said...

Alex: I'm the same way. I had to get more confident as a writer and not try so hard.

Kelley: Variety is a good thing. As long as we don't overdo it.

Laura: Not made up. I saw that when I was editing a college kid's novella.

Julie: Same here. Just keep it simple!

Michael: Once is a great while, it's okay to put in a hiss...if your character is a reptile, that is.

Jay Noel said...

David: That's what editing is for. And sprinkled here and there is good.

Leigha: I often surprise how many I'll use. Or how often my reduancy is redundant.

Diane Carlisle said...

True and worth repeating! :D

Vero said...

"YES!" she agreed enthusiastically, and then ducked.

Dafeenah said...

Ejaculated?! really? Now I kinda want to read that just to see what the sentence said.

Anonymous said...

The whole groan line reminds me of a line in Fifty Shames of Earl Grey (which is freakin' hilarious)

"Moan," I moaned. "Moan, moan, mooooooaan."

I howled.

And I'm not even touching that ejaculated. I'll behave...

M Pax said...

It might be appropriate in some adult fiction to use ejaculated. lol

Rusty Webb said...

"I can't use ejaculated as a dialog tag?" He ejaculated.

I think the word probably shouldn't be used at all, unless it's used describing copulation, or a related act. Ick.

Dead on awesome advice though. I'm with you. Said, said, and more said.

farawayeyes said...

Hissing and such. This made me laugh, and no manuscript burning for me. I promise.

Victoria Dixon said...

Oh, I LOVE "ejaculated!" My God, that's so awful it's great, I'd use it in a parody if I wrote them. LOL

So is your steampunk set in Asia? I know of a few of those and have a bucket load of drool ready.

Wanted to say thanks for weighing in on my book on Adam Heine's blog a few weeks ago. Sorry it's taken so long! *__*

Brinda said...

Man, that ended on a violent note. I'm happy to say that none of my characters are guilty.

Mr. Shife said...

Duly noted about ejaculated, but what about "I am taking a monster dump," Mr. Shife groaned.

Jay Noel said...

Diane: Thanks for visiting!

Vero: Nothing wrong with adverbs either here and there.

Jenna: 50 Shades of Shit.

Mary: You naughty girl!

Rusty: "Right on," I say.

Jay Noel said...

faraway: The hissing has to go.

Victoria: Thanks so much. And some of my book takes place in an alternative steampunkish Japan. More of it is in Asia in the second book I'm working on.

Brinda: I'm militant when necessary.

Shife: That actually works.

Martin Willoughby said...

The only two I regularly use are said and asked and the latter infrequently. Sometimes I don't even use the tag as it's obvious (according to my beta readers) who's speaking.

the weirdgirl said...

The thing that bugs me is when writers use no tags at all for too long. You lose track off who's talking. Or they jump paragraphs in the middle of dialog, so that the same person is speaking but it looks like the next one is. Totally confusing. And frankly, it smacks of laziness, like the writer got tired of writing "said" and just gave up. I hate that.

For the record a page and a half (or more) of dialog without tags is way too long.

Emily R. King said...

"Ejaculated" in a dialogue tag? Oh my. Who would do such a thing?

Milo James Fowler said...

AGREED, Jay; "said" is a fine word, and it leads to much less distraction. We want the readers to focus on what the characters are saying, and if we craft the dialogue well enough, those tags aren't even necessary.

Jay Noel said...

Martin: You must have awesome betas.

Emily: The person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey maybe.

Milo: Spot on, my good fellow.

Melissa Bradley said...

Ejaculated?! I am an erotica writer and the thought of finding that used as a dialogue tag makes me snort with laughter. This a terrific post as I have found myself using the dreaded seethed and gotten busted for it by my crit partners.

I like describing a tone of voice sometimes or is that a no no as well?

Jay Noel said...

I like describing tone of voice, as long as it adds something. If you do too much, it took can read like stage direction for a play.

The Desert Rocks said...

LOL, you are funny. That last line is making me really laugh!

Callie Leuck said...

See, now you just made me want to use "ejaculated" as a dialogue tag. Don't worry, though, it'll be some kind of satire mocking bad writing. Maybe that will make you feel less pyromanic, Jay. :)

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