Editing

“Use dialogue tags sparingly, if at all,” she said.

I was recently asked by one of my readers my thoughts on the dialogue tag “said.” I  do have thoughts, and thank you for asking this question.

In grade school we are taught to use all kinds of dialogue tags: “Watch out,” he exclaimed; “Get back here right now,” she yelled; “We can’t go to the park?” she cried. In grade school this served a purpose of teaching about expressions and emotions, and expanding our vocabulary.

In novel writing, the view is quite different. If you must use a dialogue tag, it should be “said” or, in the case of a question, “asked.” The reason for using the word “said” is that it tends to be invisible. The reader doesn’t pick up on it so it is less disruptive to the story.

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However, using “said” too often can also be distracting. For example, I recently read Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, book one, to my nine-year-old and although he loved the story, I found it difficult to read due to the sheer number of “said”s the author used.

Here’s a short excerpt from page 30:

“I can’t say I’m surprised,” Violet said. “We haven’t found any books in this house at all.”

“I know,” Klaus said miserably. “I miss reading very much. We must go out and look for a library sometime soon.”

“But not today,” Violet said. “Today we have to cook for ten people.”

At that moment there was a knock on the front door. Violet and Klaus looked at one another nervously. 

“Who in the world would want to visit Count Olaf?” Violet wondered out loud.

“Maybe somebody wants to visit us,” Klaus said, without much hope.

“Said” occurs four times in this short section. This is less than half a page and it’s written like this throughout the entire novel. Reading it out loud, I got so sick of saying “said…said…said,” at times I wanted to throw the book.

Although “said” is the preferred tag to use, it can also be over used. How do we fix that?

We write by showing action and creating characterization, then attaching the dialogue to one or the other. The reader then knows who is speaking, making many dialogue tags redundant and unnecessary.

The other aspect to keep in mind is the action and atmosphere of your scene will determine how the character is speaking. So tags like “exclaimed” and “yelled” become unnecessary as the scene sets the reader up to know how the character is expressing themselves.

Let’s take the same example from above, but here I’ve made some editing changes to eliminate dialogue tags:

“I can’t say I’m surprised.” Violet closed the door on the last kitchen cupboard. “We haven’t found any books in this house at all.”

“I know.” Klaus hung his head, staring at his toes. “I miss reading very much. We must go out and look for a library sometime soon.”

Violet nodded in agreement. “But not today. Today we have to cook for ten people.”

At that moment there was a knock on the front door. Violet and Klaus looked at one another nervously. 

“Who in the world would want to visit Count Olaf?” Violet’s lips pressed together until they were very thin and turned pale.

Klaus raised his eyebrows. “Maybe somebody wants to visit us.” But then, thinking better of it, shook his head. 

You can see that I was able to remove every “said” in this section, plus I think more of Violet’s and Klaus’s personalities are expressed to the reader. What do you think?

Am I saying there is no place for dialogue tags? Not quite, but I am suggesting that they be used sparingly. 

This comes part and parcel with the expression “show don’t tell.” By showing the characters’ actions, the reader experiences a clearer picture of what’s happening and gets to know the characters better. Otherwise, as in the original example, the excessive use of dialogue tags, is more telling than showing and it takes away from the story. 

The author needs to communicate the story to his/her reader in the most creative yet clear way possible, reducing all distractions, thus allowing the reader’s imagination to see the story leap off the page. 

I encourage you to add dialogue tags to your list of words to reduce during one of your editing passes on your manuscript. 

Please share your thoughts in the comments. 

2 thoughts on ““Use dialogue tags sparingly, if at all,” she said.”

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