Hot Topic: Dialogue Tags

In this series of posts, I’m going to cover writing topics that are often hotly debated and tell you where I stand on that particular issue. The goal here is not to try and persuade you that my view is correct, and more to tell you why I do the things I do and why they work for me. In general, I don’t believe these issues have a single right answer, so if you’re looking for me to espouse the one true way, you might be disappointed. Still, these topics are always fun to discuss, so let’s get started.

Let’s talk about dialogue tags. You can go to Twitter right now, search on dialogue tags, and you’ll find a hundred different posts where folks will tell how you should or shouldn’t use them. If we boil the arguments down, there are basically two primary debates when it comes to dialogue tags. The first is how often you should use them, if at all, and the second is if you should use any tag other than said. People have opinions across the spectrum on both issues, but here’s what I stand.

To Tag or Not To Tag: I fall somewhere in the middle of the pack as far as how often I use dialogue tags. There are times I leave them off and times I use action beats instead. In addition, I often find I can delete more than a few dialogue tags in revision. That said, I think it’s useful to remind the reader who is speaking on a fairly regular basis to avoid confusion. As a reader, I like this approach as well, and that preference has made it into my writing. Again, this really is a style and preference thing. I know published, successful writers who use startlingly few dialogue tags and writers who use them for just about every piece of dialogue. Neither is wrong if it fits the author’s style and voice and the reader can follow the conversation.

He Said/She Said: I am generally a writer who adheres to the school of thought that the dialogue tag said is really all you need. It’s the one I’m gonna use most of the time. This has a lot to do with the stripped down, straightforward style of writing I employ, where a more grandiose tag might stick out and pull the reader out of the story. I might use the occasional asked or replied to vary things up a tad, but, to me, those aren’t too different from said.

Now, when I write genres like fantasy or something more stylized like noir, I’ll loosen up a little with the dialogue tags and add things like whispered and shouted into the mix. I’m still more likely to use said than any other tag, but, to me, the these genres and settings allow for a bit more latitude in dialogue tags.

I’m generally not a fan of dialogue tags that aren’t directly tied to the way humans actually communicate. So, for example, humans definitely whisper or shout, but they don’t often hiss, roar, or howl. Again, this comes down to preference and writing style, and there are plenty of writers doing very well using dialogue tags like those above. They just don’t work for me . . . usually. Like any writer, I break my own rules all the damn time, so I’m sure someone has roared or hissed in something I’ve written somewhere. 😊

So that’s where I stand on this issue. How do you feel about dialogue tags? How often do you use them? Do you stick to said or are you more liberal with your tags? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

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