For the past two weeks, I’ve been struggling with dialogue tags. Silly me, I thought I’d mastered them… then a friend pointed out how many unnecessary tags I managed to work into my text. So, I went on a learning binge, and am now ready to impart the vast amount of knowledge I’ve collected. Which isn’t a ton, but it’s definitely improved my dialogue.
Lesson #1: The modifier “said” is invisible. Use it, because readers completely overlook it.
“Take this,” Matthias said.
I’ve identified the speaker with that little invisible word. Other words, like exclaimed, postulated, articulated, and shouted, are not invisible. They stand out in the sentence, calling attention to themselves and away from the actual dialogue. And I don’t want that. So I use “said” whenever I need to identify the speaker.
William Noble, in his book “Shut up!” He Explained: A Writer’s Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue, says that the modifier “said” should be used at least three-quarters of the time any modifier is used, and a page of dialogue should not go by without a couple of “saids” appearing in the text.
Lesson learned: when I want to identify the speaker, use the word “said.”
Lesson #2: When possible, avoid dialogue tags altogether.
“Take this,” Matthias said.
“What is it?” I peered inside.
The reader knows Matthias said that last line because it was his turn to speak. (Of course, if there were three people in the conversation, then the speaker of line 3 becomes foggy. But when there’s only two, this works well.) When possible, leave out the tag. It makes for a quicker read, and it’s definitely invisible. But I need to be careful, because if it isn’t clear who is speaking, then leaving the tag off can add to the confusion and annoyance factor.
Lesson #3: Use beats instead of a modifier. Beats are the little bits of action interspersed through a scene, such as someone walking to the window or rubbing their eyes. They can take the place of the word “said,” like this:
“Take this.” Matthias handed me a bulging leather bag.
Instead of saying said, or gushed, or ordered, I substitute the dialogue tag with this big of action. Doing this adds a pause in the speech, eliminates the need for tag, and identifies the speaker all at once. A brilliant little tool, which I employ often. There are two important rules to remember when working with tags: don’t interrupt the dialogue with too many beats (the poor reader will get dizzy, trying to follow all the action and conversation) and don’t use cliched tags (puffing on a cigarette, drinking coffee, scratching, etc.). Otherwise, they work nicely in place of tags.
Lesson #4: Use a variety of these methods. Too many of any one technique stands out. Not using “said” enough, using no dialogue tags at all, or using only beats all lead to confusion for the reader. That Biblical truth is universal: moderation is the key.
For what it’s worth!