The Dialogue Tag Debate

I am still editing the novel and of course part of that includes looking at the dialogue. When I write my first draft, I do not tend to put in many dialogue tags. I get in the writing flow and just get the dialogue down as I hear it. I go back and add tags where they are needed later. Lately, I have been reading many conflicting views on how to properly tag the dialogue.

“It is hot in here,” Henry said.

The example above is consider the most professional way to tag dialogue. Readers apparently don’t even notice the word said when they read. This means that when reading dialogue tagged that way they can remain immersed in the dialogue and it will continue to flow for them. The reader will quickly glance at the speaker’s name and carry on. Some writers feel this is mundane and boring. I have read statements by many editors and published writers arguing that this is the way to go.

“It is hot in here,” Henry said feebly.

The second example is considered to be the work of an amateur writer. The use of the word feebly supposedly pulls the reader out of the story to process the word. The arguments for using these types of dialogue tags are good ones. Using just the said tag in the first example above tells us nothing about the speaker other then he is hot. Using the word feebly as part of the tag at least adds an element of drama to his statement and tells us a little more about the speaker’s reaction to the fact he is hot. This is considered lazy writing because writers who use these tags along with adding other adverbs (such as – she said longingly or he said angrily) are trying to convey the scene with one word descriptors instead of expanding on it. It seems in the publishing world this is the biggest dialogue tagging no-no.

He dropped to his knees and clutched his chest. “It is hot in here.” 

The third example is an action tag. This type of tag is popular with show me don’t tell me writers. It allows the reader to hear the dialogue and get a visual impression of what is going on in the story. I prefer this type of tag when I am writing and when I am reading. I have read that this is the second choice for dialogue tagging.

“John, it is hot in here.”

The final example does not include any tag. It is considered okay to do this as long as you have made it clear who the person speaking is. In this case if two people are in the scene and one of them wasn’t called John, it would be clear that Henry is the speaker. The only warning I give with this comes from me as a guilty party, I once did nearly a page of this type of no tag dialogue. I compensated by adding the names of the characters in too much. It was painful to read back. I cleaned it up easy enough by giving the speakers more distinct voices though.

I use or have used all these types of tags in my writing. I find the simple clear and concise he said or she asked boring. When a large span of dialogue is occurring the use of either the more descriptive tags or the action tags seems to add a little more colour to the scene and breaks it up a little. In sections where there is a little more narrative sandwiched  in with the dialogue I often omit the tags because it is clear who is speaking without them. My favourites remain the action tags.

What about you? What types of tags do you use when you write? Do you notice tags when you read?

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About Billie Jo Woods

Born and raised on the edge of the Helderberg Escarpment in eastern New York. Formerly a primary and middle school teacher. Moved to the North West area of England in 2003. Now a mother of three and a wannabe author.
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7 Responses to The Dialogue Tag Debate

  1. Great points in this post.

    I agree with you that in general, the second example (tag + adverb) should be avoided. However, I admit to having used it myself in certain cases. I’ve even gone back while editing and removed lengthier description in favour of an adverb. Why? Word count restriction. Sometimes, if you’re writing something like flash fiction that has a limit on word count, there’s simply no room to have description everywhere. Although not ideal, I’ve settled on adverbs more than once.

    That said, I don’t believe any of us should write by a rigid set of rules. I think all the tags have their place (with the exception of the second example) and should be called on to make the writing flow the way the author wants. I find the last example (no tags) works great for fast action. It keeps things lean, and the reader can race through the text to keep up with the speed of the action.

    Another tag I use is like a combination of the action tag and the basic he said / she said. I don’t know what it’s called but goes like this: “You’re not gonna find him and you know it,” Carl said, flicking his cigarette into a puddle.

    I’ve seen people argue for and against that one, but I find that sometimes it’s a good fit.

    • Now that you mention it, I use the action and he said/she said tags together a lot.

      I was reading Harry Potter with my son last night and laughed at how many times the second example is used in that book. I know we can’t use Harry Potter as our standard but the number of adverbs, poor dialogue tags and passive sentences is shocking and yet the stories are so easy to read. Therefore, I think we have to take most of the rules that we are “supposed” to follow with a grain and salt and just carry writing the best we can.

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  3. I do notice them, but possibly only because I read as a writer pretty much all the time these last few years. I agree with your assessment of which are best, and which to avoid, generally. But sometimes a good adverb works, as long as it well done and not over done. Like most writing rules, this one can be broken on occasion.
    It’s very annoying, and really makes writing read amaturish when it’s over done. It’s one of the main complaints in a lot of the work I edit, and self published books I attempt to read. Badly handled tags will usually make me put the book down and stop reading. And as you point out, it’s easy to fix on rewrites, so it’s a shame when a writer doesn’t do that. Hopefully posts like this one will be read, and get that point across.

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  5. Stephanie says:

    Personally, if there is ANY way I can avoid a tag, whether it’s ‘said’ ‘asked’ ‘cajoled’ ‘said squeamishly’, I don’t use it. Even action tags, as much as they can help move the dialogue along naturally when used right, can feel like a cop out if they are just cut and pasted onto bits of dialogue. For example:

    “Where do you want to each lunch?” Emily faced the mirror, sweeping stray locks of hair into place.
    “You decide.” John stood with his hands in his pockets, idly shuffling his feet.
    “Oh, I know! We’re going to that new sushi place I told you about.” Emily clapped her hands and turned to face him excitedly.
    “Okay.” John shrugged.

    Used like this, action tags become just a slightly better substitute for the “creative” dialogue tags we were encouraged to use in school, like “she pondered”, “he guffawed”, “she snarled”.

    I feel like if I’m a good enough writer (which is debatable, but lets not go there…) and I’ve done a good job developing my characters and giving them unique voices, my readers should know that Emily is bossy and John is demure. The dialogue should explain itself. If it’s not clear, I try to rewrite it. I only use tags if I absolutely must.

    • I like the action tags the best or no tag at all but am guilty of using all the differetn types of tags. I think the tone and voice of the novel plays a role in how many tags are needed as well.

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