Jump to content

Dialogue tags


Recommended Posts

I'd love to hear opinions on these. I remember @spieles (whom I miss!), when she was doing an alpha of AFD, commenting that I should use mostly the generic 'saids' and 'asks', because they're neutral and invisible. Save the more intricate stuff for when really needed. I changed a lot of my original ones around, and then it was one of the first things my editor commented on ("why do you have so many bland tags? Mix it up. No need to just use said all the time!")

Then today I made my way into season two of Writing Excuses, and I heard the 'use said as much as you can' advice from the crew there. Confused, I went home and scanned a mess of fiction books and found it was exceptionally difficult to find stand alone 'saids' and 'asks' in any of the books I own.

So, I bring the question to you, RE. Simple dialogue tags or descriptive ones? Obviously there will always be a mixture of both but do you prioritize one over the other? 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Straight-up, I will drop a book if they do very many of the said-bookisms. I'd actually be incredibly wary of advice to do otherwise-- though I suppose I am not the one paying you here.

The gist of it for me is thus: they're very telly, and they show a lack of confidence in one's own writing, and a lack of respect for the reader. Above all, to me they read clumsy, and they read amateurish. It's not a never ever thing, sometimes there's not a reasonable way to place the weight of how something's being said within the dialogue, but said-bookisms belabour the point and they sort of really awkwardly hammer in their intended meaning. The thing is, if the intended takeaways are present, are properly conveyed through word choice and through narration, they are only ever redundant. So if they're still there despite that, that's telling me that either the writer isn't sure that they got their point through, or they don't expect that the reader is going to get the point.

And I don't want to read that.

Edited by neongrey
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I think the trick is balance, definitely. I use a mixture and, simply, if I don't like the sound of it because it comes over as @neongrey describes, then I'll drop it for 'said'. I'm afraid it's down to judgement, and there are no rules, that's why writing is so hard/rewarding :) 

I'm interested by what your editor said. Now then, and I mean no offence whatever but, did I understand you correctly that NSP is rooted in publishing romances before and is only more recently branching into other genres (I feel I can remember you saying that one time)? I wonder if said-bookisms are more prevalent in the romance genre?

Link to comment
Share on other sites


Genre has some effect on it. I don't read a big enough pool of different genres to comment any more on that, though.



My written conversations tend to revolve around two people at a time. If it's an extended conversation, I abandon the tags soon after they get going. Don't really need anything colorful if none of the characters are being sarcastic, or saying lines that have multiple meanings in the current context.

Most of the time, though, I have dialogue taking place while there are other things going on. After the characters speak a few lines, I write their actions and dialogue together. It relies a bit on line structure, but works.

When someone doesn't answer with any words or actions, I need to use "said" to show that the same character is speaking.

If it's still an extended conversation, but more than two people are involved, I have to use "said" a lot while the characters are talking irregularly. I can abandon the tags if they talk long enough for the speaker to be obvious every time, but I'm not good enough yet to do this very much.

I also insert "said" into the middle of a line of dialogue when I want a long pause there. Punctuation does the same job, and I switch between the two at random.

For short bursts of dialogue that pop in like dandelions, I use descriptive tags more often. Its easier to write emotions from dialogue alone if I have enough to work with, but many of my readers interpret short bits of dialogue very differently from one another. A "she snapped back" saves me from having a third my readers think a character is angry, another third think that same character was being kind, and the remaining third with some more interpretations I never considered.

No tags when crowds are shouting a bunch of things. It's confusing and impersonal in real life, so it feels right when it's also happening in a story.



Funny enough, I'm currently reading a fantasy/romance story with a magically mute main character (The Bird and the Sword, by Amy Harmon), so analyzing how tags are used in that might be counterproductive. There are plenty of descriptive tags in here, though, for the record.

The dialogue format of Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game is direct. From what I can tell, the tags are often dropped once characters start talking predictably, taking turns. Most tags are the simple sort (said, asked, shrugged, grinned, and told). When lots of peopel are talking, "said" is sprinkled everywhere. Some chapters start off with an exchange that has no name or tags, so you need to guess at who's talking. Oh! He doesn't used "replied" in this book, I never noticed that. Cool.

Probably not a good idea to apply what's in Jane Austen's books, with how much the market has definitely changed since then. That said, it isn't all that different. There's more "said she, warmly" and "he warmly replied" rather than the modern "she said, softly" and such. In fact, I think the word "warmly" is nonexistent in both The Bird and the Sword and Ender's Game. It's used in The Star-Touched Queen and The Name of the Wind, but never to describe dialogue. In the same way, "softly" doesn't exist in Sense and Sensibility, but it does mention how hearts soften. I wonder if using "warmly" to describe a voice has mostly died out, though I doubt it.

Anyway, digging a bit too deep into the rabbit hole. I'll leave it here for now.

Edited by Vreeah
Link to comment
Share on other sites

My feelings for this is to use a mix. I like using non-neutral tags as much as possible, as it I feel every bit of emotion and tension helps (especially in purely dialogue scenes), but then I run into the 'show, don't tell' rule, and, aside from that, overuse makes it fall flat. If you have one exciting dialogue tag for every, say, ten neutral ones, that gives the reader something to pick up on. So, my general rule is status quo neutral, if I can justify it, non-neutral. Of course, whether or not can be justified is where the problems start.

(I will make a plea, as long as we're discussing grammar minutia. I once picked a promising looking steampunk of the shelf. The author had chosen to replace every single 'and' with '&'. It drove me nuts, and I wasn't able to read it. Please never, never use ampersands in writing. That, more than anything else I've ever encountered, just threw off my reading rhythm.)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you everyone, for the responses! I've skimmed through a number of my favorite books and there doesn't seem to be a real consensus at all. Guess I'll keep on keeping on with the standby of 'do what your editor wants.'

Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, aeromancer said:

The author had chosen to replace every single 'and' with '&'.


That's...... ludicrous, and utterly pointless. I would put that down too. That person's publisher / editor / agent let them down there, imho.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Join the conversation

You can post now and register later. If you have an account, sign in now to post with your account.

Reply to this topic...

×   Pasted as rich text.   Paste as plain text instead

  Only 75 emoji are allowed.

×   Your link has been automatically embedded.   Display as a link instead

×   Your previous content has been restored.   Clear editor

×   You cannot paste images directly. Upload or insert images from URL.

  • Recently Browsing   0 members

    • No registered users viewing this page.
  • Create New...