Dialogue Tags – To Be or Not To Be?

0449.lowresby Linda Bennett Pennell

Man, there certainly is a lot of advice for authors floating around these days! If interested, a writer could spend most of his/her time reading, rather than slaving away on the ole manuscript. Some advice can be ignored, but one area is a must read. The importance of improving one’s craft cannot be understated. Every facet of craft can be researched and explored ad infinitum, but the topic that seems to get some of the widest degrees of variance in advice is dialogue tags. You know, those little two or three word things that come before or after the quotation marks, things like “he said” or “she asked.”  Some writing coaches firmly believe there should never be a single dialogue tag to muddy up the reader’s immersion in the fiction experience. Others say there should be tags so that the reader knows who is speaking, but by all means limit them to the minimalist “said”, “asked”, or their simplest synonyms. Finally, there are those who advise using them as one wishes, including turning body actions into dialogue tags. They are even so permissive as to suggest that the much maligned adverbs and adjectives are okay as well.

dialogue bubblesBy way of example, let’s play around with these three differing theories. They are theories, after all, since no one has written the absolute, definitive, never-to-be-surpassed Craft Rule Book to End All Rule Books.

The scene: two men in a bar, John and Dave, argue over a debt.

 

Example 1. (No tags.)

John glared at Dave. “You owe me. You’re not going to weasel out of paying this time.”

“Who owes whom is a matter of opinion, old boy.” Dave smirked. “Have you forgotten the five hundred you bet and lost earlier this year? I have yet to see any of that sum.”

“Now see here. I never meant to make a wager. I thought we were simply joking.”

“Nonetheless, the wager was made.”

Example 2. (Minimal tags.)

John glared at Dave. “You owe me. You’re not going to weasel out of paying this time.”

“Who owes whom is a matter of opinion, old boy,” Dave said and smirked. “Have you forgotten the five hundred you bet and lost earlier this year? I have yet to see any of that sum.”

John replied, “Now see here. I never meant to make a wager. I thought we were simply joking.”

“Nonetheless, the wager was made,” Dave said, pounding the table for emphasis.

Example 3. (No holds barred.)

John glared. He leaned in so that he was eye-to-eye with Dave and sneered, “You owe me. You’re not going to weasel out of paying this time.”

“Who owes whom is a matter of opinion, old boy,” Dave replied with a broad smirk. “Have you forgotten the five hundred you bet and lost earlier this year? I have yet to see any of that sum.”

John frowned and stated loudly enough that the heads of fellow patrons turned,  “Now see here. I never meant to make a wager. I thought we were simply joking.”

“Nonetheless, the wager was made,” Dave hissed sharply, his fist pounding the table for added emphasis.

So tell us, what’s an author to do with such mixed messages? Does genre make a difference in the use of dialogue tags? If you are a reader, which do you prefer and do you have a genre preference? If you are a fellow author, what is your strategy?

 

 

 

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About Linda Bennett Pennell

Linda is an author of historical fiction and women's fiction.
This entry was posted in Soul Mate Publishing and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to Dialogue Tags – To Be or Not To Be?

  1. aliceakemp says:

    I limit the tags to ‘said’ and ‘asked.’ I attempt to let the verbs run the action. Elmo Leonard says that ‘said’ disappears for the reader. I find the no holds barred approach tedious and overdone. JMHO

    • lindapennell says:

      Like you, Alice, I tend fall into the everything in moderation category. I do the no holds barred thing when it feels like it enhances the story. I think a mixture on styles keeps the story more interesting and from becoming flat.

  2. Well…definitely the last one “no holds barred” gave me a much more of a feeling that I was right there and saw that tempers were flashing. The first one, to me, was a bit Hemingwayish…blunt, cryptic, almost like a script for a play, where the audience has to see the action on stage to get the real feel.
    Dunno, but I think maybe men tend to write like that?
    Kaaarina

    • lindapennell says:

      Kaarina, I think your and Alice’s comments prove what I have felt for some time now regarding the “rules” of writing fiction. There are several ways to approach most craft topics and personal preference seems to be the greatest determining factor in what is “right” and what is “wrong”. As writers, we must strike a balance between what works for most readers and what feels right to us for our story. This raises a question for me. Does a writer’s use of tags and other craft items vary if they write in more than one genre? Does one’s voice and style shift with the genre?

      • Yes,
        I think definitely the way we use tags changes with the sub-genre. The tone is totally different in each of the examples and each seems to me to belong to a different “category”.
        Kaarina

  3. lindapennell says:

    Kaarina, I love your pointing out how the tone of the examples changes with the addition of verbiage and how each one feels like it belongs to a different category. This confirms for me the importance of having good crit partners and beta readers.

  4. Jill Prim says:

    Kaarina, I think the no holds barred is the most descriptive…so much more so than the other two methods. Great comparison with writing techniques- thanks for pointing it out. But I think it all depends on the scene and what the writer is trying to get across to reader.

  5. Beth Carter says:

    What a great comparison. I know adverbs are a no-no but I do like them from time to time. They can’t be overdone but do add the right tone and emphasis as said above. The first method is too stringent, for my tastes.

  6. lindapennell says:

    Thank you, Beth and Jill! I guess I fall into the everything in moderation camp. For the life of me I can’t understand why adjectives and adverbs are so verboten. Obviously, a surplus of them is distracting for the reader, but I agree that they can enhance the scene when used appropriately. In the final analysis, it really does seem to come down to personal taste and style. This raises another question for me. Am I the only writer who ever wonders if some of the pronouncements from the literary on-high are made in haste 9in the case of blog post deadlines) or because there is a financial motive to laying down dictums?

  7. I tend to fall into the ‘no holds barred’ category when it comes to tags (minus the he said…she said wording). My editor, as a rule of thumb, prefers dialogue tags with substance—not a he said/she said conversation. Her motto…if you are going to use them…make them count for something.

  8. Pingback: Learning By Example | kathybryson

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