Dialogue tags

Happy couple talking and laughing on date. Smiling girl and guy having conversation. Amusing man making woman laugh. Good relationship.

After a few lines of dialogue, it can be tempting to vary the standard “he said” and “she said” with more colourful alternatives. But if the dialogue tag is too colourful, it can weaken what might otherwise be strong writing. Having your characters “quip”, “retort”, “spit”, and “roar” is distracting. There are scenes in which a more exotic dialogue tag might be effective, but it’s risky. Here’s why. When readers come across a flamboyant dialogue tag, they are likely to miss what the character said and think instead about the word choice made by the author.

Besides being distracting, overly colourful dialogue tags can feel pushy. Readers dislike being pushed. They prefer instead to be entranced. Colourful dialogue tags tend to be melodramatic, which is why they seem pushy. Instead of leading the reader to discover how the character feels and empathize, these dialogue tags scream the message. A gentler approach is almost always more effective.

Readers want us to fill their imagination with images, actions and spoken words that are so vivid they forget for a while that what they’re reading isn’t real. Afterwards, if we’ve done our job well, they’ll tell their friends they couldn’t put our book down.

As writers, we want to give our readers just enough information to set their imagination to work and we want to do that in a way that does not feel forced. Using “said” does that. Readers are accustomed to the humble word and they pass over it quickly. This gives more focus to the dialogue and that’s exactly where we want the focus to be.

Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, realistic dialogue is one of the best ways to convey character. How people speak and what they say reveals so much. If you want to convey emotion, there are more effective ways than using a dialogue tag. Watch for my next blog on the different ways of capturing emotions.