Dialogue Tags–Spawn of the Devil or Useful Minion?

On a recent #yalitchat on POV, a few of us got into a side discussion of dialogue tags. What’s a dialogue tag? The simplest is said (when using past tense) or says (in present tense). For a question, you use asked or ask. It’s used with he/she, or a character’s name, to identify the speaker. So, as an example:

“Come with me,” he said.
“I can’t,” she said. “They’ll punish me.”
“I’ll protect you,” he said.
“You can’t,” she said. “No one can.”

Perfectly acceptable dialogue. Assuming you already know who “he” and “she” are in the scene, there’s no doubt whose dialogue is whose.

But some people are vehemently opposed to dialogue tags. They’d much rather use action to convey who’s saying what:

“Come with me.” He reached for her hand.
She snatched it away from him. “I can’t. They’ll punish me.”
He touched her cheek. “I’ll protect you.”
She shook her head. “You can’t. No one can.”

Each bit of character action conveys who speaks each line of dialogue. This works too. The action adds to the scene by revealing some of the inner conflict and motivation between the characters.

So which is preferable? Dialogue tags or action? Neither. It depends on the scene. Using strictly “he said/she said” in a dialogue-heavy scene can result in “floating head syndrome” where the reader isn’t quite sure where the characters are or what they’re doing. In the above example, you only get a hint of what the relationship might be between these characters. The action example shows that intimacy more clearly.

But over-using action to identify the speaker can bog down the dialogue. If you want a fast-paced dialogue exchange, you don’t want to insert character action every time the speaker changes. In the above example, the use of action gets a bit clunky.

The solution is to vary your use of dialogue tags and action. You can even omit both when it’s clear from the context and dialogue who’s speaking. Here’s an example from Tankborn. To give it some context, Devak has just told Kayla that it was his brother who was supposed to take his father’s place, not him:

“Why didn’t he?” Kayla asked.
“He’s dead,” Devak said. “The lowborn Sheffold riots.”
A dim fact surfaced now. “Azad Sharma.”
Devak nodded. “My half-brother.”
“Then you—”
“I’m the child he gave his life to save.”
“But they never meant to kill him.”
His gaze narrowed on her. “Of course they did. He went in as a peacemaker. He’d befriended some of the lowborns, but they betrayed him.”
“That’s how the trueborns tell the story,” Kayla said.

The point is not to get caught up in using only one method of identifying the speaker in dialogue. You wouldn’t want every paragraph in your book to be the exact same length, or have the same number of words in every sentence. You wouldn’t use the same adjectives over and over. You vary your language so that the reader finds your work engaging. And in the case of dialogue tags and action, you use them to clarify the speaker, to describe action, and reveal conflict or motivation.

About karensandler

Lover of chocolate. A couple felines short of full-fledged Cat Lady. Author of the YA Tankborn Trilogy (TANKBORN, AWAKENING, and REBELLION), from Tu Books. Founding team member of We Need Diverse Books. Opinions expressed here are my own.
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2 Responses to Dialogue Tags–Spawn of the Devil or Useful Minion?

  1. Alice says:

    Excellent advice on dialogue tags. Thanks.

  2. adamgaylord says:

    I think you make some good points. When it comes down to it, context is key. I agree heartily that sometimes the best dialogue tag is the one that isn’t there at all. A writer has to keep the words flowing and not throw out any tripping points like unnecessary he-saids or she-saids.

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