Dialogue tags and all the bad advice….

One of the wonderful things about social media is that it provides a gateway for like-minded people to meet and interact in ways that weren’t around in previous decades. The ‘writing community’ is alive and thriving on several social media platforms, full of positive energy and a willingness—no eagerness to help.

This is both good and bad. It’s good that people can come together with others who share the same interest, but sometimes we step outside of our areas of expertise by giving advice that may or may not be correct. Or even just opinion based.

Years after entering the ‘writing community,’ the debate on dialogue tags is still alive and thriving. I’m going to break it down and go over it analytically, though I will pepper in opinions of my own at the end.

DISCLAIMER: I am not an expert. I have a masters in business, not in writing, which is why I’m doing an analytical analysis. 

The Debate: 

Opinion #1: You should only use said and asked when writing. Readers will read over those words without noticing them.

Opinion #2: Said is dead. Use diverse tags.

Opinion #3: Cut as many dialogue tags as possible and replace them with action tags!!!!

Opinion #4: Don’t use any tags. All tags are dead.

What is a writer to do when they post their question on social media and are inundated with very different pieces of advice, like the example above?

It’s simple. When writing, seek out professional advice. There are people that have never been published or held a job that encompassed writing, giving very specific advice that is best left to professionals.

Now, back to dialogue tags. I have an answer for you. A good one. A professional one, but not as a writer or an editor. As an analyst.

It’s usually best to follow industry-standard in your genre, and dialogue tag usage may vary from genre to genre. In a very FAKE example that has no bearing on reality: it’s possible that western romance normally uses said, but medieval fantasy uses numerous other tags like whispered, shouted, muttered. I’m just saying that genres may use different practices—and that’s okay!

So, it’s never a bad idea to pick up a popular book in your genre and see what tags the author uses. For example, GRRM in A Game of Thrones uses: told, put in, insisted, shouted, reminded, continued blithely(yes, he uses adverbs with tags), and agreed among many other tags…including said.

Let’s check out prolific author Stephen King. He uses: replied, hissed, whispered, told, added, said breathlessly(another adverb in a tag!), muttered, roared, and many other tags…including said.

Let’s check out Nora Robert’s Hideaway: looking at the Amazon preview, there are almost zero dialogue tags. ZERO!!! I did find a whispered, but it’s almost all action tags.

So, based on initial analysis of very few books, it appears that two prolific authors use several different tags. And one barely uses any. 

What does this mean? Should you make a decision based on that small sample size? No. It means that you should do what you want knowing industry standard, finetune it, then send it for editing and beta reading to see what others think. It means that you shouldn’t just take arbitrary advice from people off the internet, including myself.

Now for my opinions….

And they are just that. Opinions. 

  1. I hear the advice, “You shouldn’t have to say whispered, the scene you set up should make it obvious.” —BULLSHIT. Sometimes whispered is the perfect word that gets you to the next, and the reader is going to be fine with it.
  2. I love action tags! Action tags help move everything along better and can make it obvious who is speaking when there are more than two people.
  3. Not every dialogue requires a tag, but having too few is confusing.
  4. Said and asked get repetitive and boring. Example:

“Hi,” Jake said.

“Hi. How are you?” Sue asked.

“I’m fine. How about you?” Jake asked.

“Okay, but my back does ache,” Sue said.

“I fell in love with this little Mexican restaurant down the street,” Jake said.

“The Purple Taco? I got sick eating there,” Sue said.

“I have an iron gut,” Jake said.

“Wish I did,” Sue said.

5. Although said and asked get repetitive, too many different action tags get exhausting to read. 

“Hi,” Jake said.

“Hi. How are you?” Sue asked.

“I’m fine. How about you?” Jake questioned.

“Okay, but my back does ache,” Sue answered.

“I fell in love with this little Mexican restaurant down the street,” Jake enthused.

“The Purple Taco? I got sick eating there,” Sue responded.

“I have an iron gut,” Jake said.

“Wish I did,” Sue muttered.

Conclusion:

So, there is a balance with how you should use tags, and receiving feedback from the right people is critical in perfecting your manuscript. If you’re unsure, have beta readers go over a chapter with a lot of dialogue and ask them what they think. Click HERE to learn more about beta reading.

So…that’s the blog. Some of you will disagree on some of my points, and that’s fine; just realize you’re not going to change my opinion, and arguing with me will be like talking to a brick wall—because I’ll be working. 

Yours in Adventure,

Lark

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