Dialogue Tips part V: lable your dialogue with care

Initially this was going to be the obligatory, “don’t just use the ‘said’ tag” post. However, I realised quickly that was opening a Pandora’s Box for things to go horrifically wrong in the other direction.

I have nothing personal against ‘said’ as a dialogue tag, and believe it has its uses. I’m not one of those writers who winces even at a singular use of the ‘said’ tag. Tags exist to be used, not ignored, and ‘said’ is no exception.

Writers who only use the ‘said’ tag are making an understandable newbie mistake. On the flip side,there is the other newbie mistake that veers in the other direction and will not only go out of its way to not use ‘said’, but falls victim to the unfortunate misuse of the Thesaurus. All writers make mistakes; we have to allow ourselves as writers to make mistakes before we can strike the right note. Dialogue is no exception.

So how do you know if you’re dialogue tags are good ones?

I would recommend setting them up as indirect dialogue. Often you can see what’s not working when you rearrange your dialogue because you’re forcing yourself to look at your dialogue in a different way. So for example:

“You are in so much trouble,” Emma grinned at Jason.

This looks pretty legitimate on the surface, but when you rearrange it into indirect dialogue:

Emma grinned at Jason you are in so much trouble.

The dialogue tag, ‘grinned’ no longer works. That’s because you can’t ‘grin’ something any less than you can chagrin something.

Other dialogue tags look like they could legitimately work, but then someone whips out Mr. Dictionary and explains to you that murmur and mutter are not good dialogue tags because they imply that something being said is muddled, in a low voice, and spoken in private. That’s where idioms like “under your breath” come in handy though.

So what are some good tags? Here are a few to start with:

Stated
Complained
Whined
Contended
Asked
Questioned
Yelled
Berated
Thought
Wondered
Contemplated

So go on, give other dialogue tags a try! And don’t give up on ‘said’, just cut back on it; as they say, all things in moderation. Too much ‘said’ in your writing isn’t good for you or your writing.

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