Dissolving Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags, if done right, can dissolve into speech to the point where the reader barely notices them, if not at all, other than to register who is speaking. Actions stand out, but the “he said” “she said” bits will naturally be scanned over when reading, unless you draw undue attention to them.
I’m a great believer in simplicity when it comes to dialogue tags. Our eyes automatically skip “John said” in the middle of a line of speech, but subconsciously we identify that it is John who has spoken. If you stick to said or says (depending on the tense you are writing in), with the occasional asked, replied, and shouted, you can comfortably assume your readers will not get tripped up by the tags and will breeze through the dialogue. However, words like exclaimed, vocalised, announced, and retorted are so unusual and out of place within the modern vernacular that they become distractions, often causing the reader to stumble at the point where you really want them focusing on the actual dialogue.
Another often abused factor of dialogue tags is the unnecessary addition of adverbs, in particular adding -ly words onto the basic action of speech.
“That’s not good,” I said understandingly.
These kinds of adverbs are literal examples of telling instead of showing.
“That’s not good,” I said, trying to show understanding by softening my tone.
The former example doesn’t give the reader much to go on except that the character is speaking understandingly, which is rather vague. The latter, on the other hand, shows how the character is attempting to be understanding. The minimalists, of course, prefer less words, in which case why not substitute the tag for an action or description?
“That’s not good.” I put my hand on her arm.
If this sentence is amid an exchange between two characters, and the mention of understanding can be inferred, why not just remove the word? Readers are more intuitive than writers sometimes assume. Show, don’t tell.
To simplify even further, some context to the line is required. Emotions and motives can be insinuated entirely through dialogue, and whilst this does not always work, at times the less-is-more approach can increase the pace of an otherwise potentially tedious scene. To remove the tags altogether is it worth observing that generally dialogue can run for five lines before the reader loses track of who is speaking.
“Good morning,” Susan said. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” I glanced at my watch. “And you?”
“Not really, I haven’t slept much recently.”
“No, Larry’s started snoring again.”
“That’s not good.”
“No, I know. I think it’s because–”
“I’m sorry.” I cut her off, my tone firmer than it should have been. “I’m about to be late.”
Adding subtle tags and actions creates a more immersive experience for the reader, allowing them to get lost in the conversation and maintain their suspension of disbelief, and keep the momentum of the scene.
A good example of what not to do with dialogue tags, in my opinion, can be found in a novel called Behind Closed Doors.
‘It was only a migraine,’ I protest.
‘Unfortunately, Grace is prone to them.’ Jack looks over at me sympathetically. ‘But they never last long, thank goodness.’
‘It’s the second time you’ve stood me up,’ Diane points out.
‘I’m sorry,’ I apologise.
‘Well, at least you didn’t forget this time,’ she teases.
Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris
I think the worst line, for me at least, is the repetitive nature of ‘I’m sorry,’ I apologise. Combined with points out instead of said (which could have been forgiven), telling through words like protests and teases instead of showing, and Jack looking over sympathetically, the whole extract demonstrates more attention being paid to the tags than the conversation. One of them would have been fine. Two could be justifiable, although some editors may disagree. But on every line?
To compare, here is a similarly structured conversation involving more than two characters from Gone Girl.
My father looks at his shoes. My mother takes a deep breath. ‘Six hundred and fifty thousand,’ she says.
‘Oh.’ It is all I can say. It is almost everything we have.
‘Amy, maybe you and I should discuss—’ Nick begins.
‘No, no, we can do this,’ I say. ‘I’ll just go grab my checkbook.’
‘Actually,’ Marybeth says, ‘if you could wire it to our account tomorrow, that would be best. Otherwise there’s a ten-day waiting period.’
That’s when I know they are in serious trouble.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
As with Behind Closed Doors, there are multiple people speaking, so several tags are required to keep track of the conversation. Other than begins, which in the context is acceptable, all the other tags are either says or an action. As such, the tags dissolve upon the first read, and the conversation itself flows much better.
Staying with Gone Girl, here is another conversation with subtle and dissolving tags.
‘Anyone hear from the detectives?’ Rand asked.
‘Nothing,’ Marybeth and I both answered.
‘That may be good, right?’ Rand asked, hopeful eyes, and Marybeth and I both indulged him. Yes, sure.
‘When are you leaving for Memphis?’ she asked me.
‘Tomorrow. Tonight my friends and I are doing another search of the mall. We don’t think it was done right yesterday.’
‘Excellent,’ Marybeth said.
Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn
It is clear who is speaking, yet the main focus of the scene remains on what is being said. There are no words used that would not appear in the characters’ vocabulary, and nothing out of place or distracting as the scene unfolds. It is a cleanly written and well-paced extract where the dialogue tags successfully dissolve into the narrative.
Finally, we must return to another scene in Behind Closed Doors where every line still possesses an overt and often unnecessary tag, along with plenty of telling and not much showing.
‘She used to travel all over the world first class,’ Diane says breathlessly.
‘Not all over the world,’ I correct. ‘Just to South America. I sourced their fruit, mainly from Chile and Argentina,’ I add, largely for Esther’s benefit.
Rufus looks at me admiringly. ‘That must have been interesting.’
Behind Closed Doors by B A Paris
The lesson is: less is more. Dialogue tags can dissolve, even disappear, and this will not be of detriment to your story. If anything, it will enhance it. Drawing attention to the tags, or adding adverbs, will detract from the speech and upset the pacing of the scene, interrupting the reader’s attention and possibly ruining the story entirely. My advice is to just keep it simple.
© 2017 Seb Reilly
Available under the Thanet Writers Education Policy
Seb Reilly is a writer, fiction author and occasional musician. He lives by the sea in Thanet, Kent, with his family and two cats.