Dialogue Tags-Know When To Use Them and When To Lose Them

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“You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em…” Great song. Dialogue can be tricky. The goal is to have the reader feel like they are listening to a conversation, instead of reading one. You also need to make sure the reader knows who’s talking. You don’t want them half way through the conversation, looking at your book with a bewildered frown because they are totally lost. It could put your entire plot in jeopardy. If you’re lucky, the reader will go back and re-read the dialogue, trying to figure it out. If you aren’t so lucky, you run the risk of losing your reader all together. Most editors will agree, the only real dialogue tags are “said” and “asked.” You may have come across “responded” or “whispered” and a few others, but if not used correctly and sparingly, these kinds of tags can make your manuscript seem amateurish. There are also times when dialogue tags are completely unnecessary. When two people are talking, it’s not necessary for each phrase to be tagged. The tag is used to only clarify who is talking, so the reader doesn’t become confused, but you don’t want a whole page of “he said, she said.” In the first example (which just happens to be from my upcoming holiday short, Angels in Disguise) we have a few people talking. Even though there is not a tag in each phrase, you know who is speaking. “Hey Gabe, see that blonde Angel on the dance floor?” I follow Mike’s line of sight and find her in the crowd, dancing with two other girls. “Oh, yeah, I see her. Damn, she’s hot.” “Okay, I call dibs.” “You can’t call dibs on a woman, bro.” “You bet your ass I can,” Mike says. “I bet I can get a number faster than you can,” Duke chimes in. “I’ll do you one better,” I say, taking the last sip of beer in the bottle, “I’ll bet you she goes home with me tonight.” “Hey guys, I called dibs, remember,” Mike says, looking back and forth between us. Duke has that glint in his eyes. I’ve seen it before, but he needs to be brought down a notch, for once. “Mike, you can’t lay claim on a woman you don’t even know,” Duke says. Looking at me he continues, “May the best man win.” “I will, don’t worry,” I say with a smirk. We clink beer bottles, and I realize I’m empty. “Go ahead man, give it your best shot. I’ll be at the bar, watching you fail.” “I’ll call you later from her place.” “You wish.” We have Gabe, Mike and Duke speaking above. Not every phrase is tagged, but it still remains clear who is talking. Obviously, if there were no dialogue tags, we would be totally confused, but what if we added? “Hey Gabe, see that blonde Angel on the dance floor?” asks Mike. I follow Mike’s line of sight and find her in the crowd, dancing with two other girls. “Oh, yeah, I see her. Damn, she’s hot,” I say. “Okay, I call dibs,” Mike says. “You can’t call dibs on a woman, bro,” I say. “You bet your ass I can,” Mike says. “I bet I can get a number faster than you can,” Duke chimes in. “I’ll do you one better,” I say, taking the last sip of beer in the bottle, “I’ll bet you she goes home with me tonight,” I say. “Hey guys, I called dibs, remember,” Mike says, looking back and forth between us. Duke has that glint in his eyes. I’ve seen it before, but he needs to be brought down a notch, for once. “Mike, you can’t lay claim on a woman you don’t even know,” Duke says. Looking at me he continues, “May the best man win,” Duke says. “I will, don’t worry,” I say with a smirk. We clink beer bottles, and I realize I’m empty. “Go ahead man, give it your best shot. I’ll be at the bar, watching you fail,” I say. “I’ll call you later from her place,” Duke says. “You wish,” I say. Okay, see how those extra tags are not only unnecessary, but they also mess with the flow. In my opinion, you only need tags to prevent confusion, but keep them to a minimum. The conversation will end up sounding more natural, and when you do add tags, they will be almost invisible. Oh, and I’m sure my editor may having something to say about “chimes in” as a tag, but since 99% of the time, my tags are “said” or “asked” and kept to a minimum, I’m thinking one slightly dramatic tag, once in a blue moon, might just make it to the final draft. The best article I’ve ever read, which explains dialogue tags and how to use them, can be found here. I say use them, but don’t abuse them. Do you ever find yourself going back to re-read a conversation, because the dialogue wasn’t clear? Did that prevent you from reading other books by that author? Don’t forget to come to our Holiday Anthology Cover Reveal Bash. anthology

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