Writer’s improvement hell – tag lines in dialogue

writers improvement

As I steadfastly continue to procrastinate on finishing up the last few chapters of my book, I’m making a mental list of problems I need to sort out when the process of iterative revisions begins. One issue that came to my attention a couple days ago is the use of tag lines. You know, those bits of sentence at the end of dialogue that run ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’.

Usually, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the dialogue tags. Perhaps I should, but I don’t. Anyhow I started thinking about it because I ran across a blog post on the topic -and not the first. The basic take away of these various posts has been to avoid the use of dialogue tags. Perhaps I’m misinterpreting these bits of advice, but I’m not so sure. The favored approach seems to be to simply use the ‘he said’/’she asked’ variety of tags, if you must use any at all. Naturally, this gets me to the question “Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?”

To start off, I’m going to disagree with the advice that one shouldn’t use dialogue tags outside of the plain-jane variety. Not that I don’t think this advice has some merit, because I think it does speak to a problem.

When it comes to disagreeing with folks on topics I don’t consider myself an expert at, I tend to second-guess my opinion, and try to understand why I must be wrong (Note: Once I’ve concluded I’m right, good luck blasting me out of that position.) The first thing I did was walk over to my bookcase and pull off four books to see how they handled dialogue tags. I chose books I enjoyed and that I remember reading fairly well. These were: Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone, The Pale Horsemen by Bernard Cornwell, Lord of the Rings, and Rendezvous with Rama by Arthur C. Clarke. All of them use dialogue tags, though Rendezvous with Rama is virtually all exposition and so examples were harder to find. That set me to Internet searching, which mostly came up with the same advice I’m disagreeing with right now. The next place I went was to a book called Fiction First Aid . This book covers the topic in about 3 pages, and it doesn’t say to avoid dialogue tags, it just provides some very broad guidelines on how to approach them.

I have come to the conclusion that dialogue tags and their use are stylistic. For the purpose of illustration, here’s an example of what I would regard as a bad use of a dialogue tag:

(A) “I don’t remember if I mentioned my plan or not,” she blatantly lied.

But, is it really bad? Well, I think so, but I lifted it from a book my wife loves, and she’s fairly particular about reading material. I think it’s bad because blatantly isn’t necessary – this is true even once you drop the line back into context in the book.

Here is a made-up one that I think is heinous:
(B) “I’ve got something for you young lady,” he intoned smarmily.

Is the use of the tag the thing that’s heinous? No, in my opinion, it’s the word choice. In fact, just because I hate it doesn’t mean that someone else wouldn’t think it’s a nice bit of descriptive -and maybe it is.

Giving general advice is hard when style is involved. Every writer does it a little differently and, anecdotally, genre plays a role too, although I’m having a tough time seeing even that. It seems that you should use dialogue tags that are appropriate, and necessary. This is KEY – if you have a reason for ‘he said grudgingly’, then use it, if you don’t have a reason, attempt to apply the rule of less is more. I think it’s also appropriate to sprinkle in things like ‘replied’ to break up the ‘she said’ sort of tags, IF that’s your style. Although, I will go a little further to say that if you’re hitting a thesaurus to find new tags, you may need to tone it down a bit.

All this said, I re-examined my writing. Turns out, I make fairly limited use of alternative tags, usually I use stuff like ‘replied’, ‘growled’, ‘shouted’ or ‘called’, but in fairly limited measure, and even less frequently with an adverb (like example B.) More often though, I use action or dialogue beats. Here’s an example of what that looks like:

Lord Feorun smiled and slapped him on the shoulder. “What I have in mind for you is far worse than death.”

When it comes to dialogue, I think tags are likely to be the least of your problems. Tags can, of course, be done badly, but if you read enough, you probably already have an intuitive feel for what doesn’t work for the reader you’re trying to engage with. The bigger problem is repetition, if you repeat ‘he said’ too often, or use dialogue beats for every speaking character, or alternate tags with adverbs at the end of every piece of dialogue, it will have the feel of repetition, and that more than the use of tags is likely to read badly. Anyhow, this is one of those instances where giving advice might be pointless, and so here I am, right where I started – Do I have a problem with dialogue tags?

Incidentally – it’s my opinion that this is not one of my weak areas.


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