NaNo and Dialogue Tags


Are you writing like crazy?
Already behind (but still going strong) like me?
Here’s today’s writing month hint– It’s a quote from William Wordsworth. “Fill your paper with the breathings of your heart.”
And keep going!

Below 320 R Student, Bryn Clegg, who is writing an amazing novel, gives us a few hints about writing better.

Dialogue tags serve two purposes: they tell the reader who is speaking, and they show the reader any relevant action. Without dialogue tags, it can be impossible to decipher who is participating, as in the following:
“What color?”

With dialogue tags, the conversation becomes more intelligible:
“What color?”  Maria asked.
“Blue,” John said.

Dialogue tags should be either “said” or “asked.” Words like informed, whispered, and demanded are distracting. Most published works contain unnecessary dialogue tags. Some of these problems can be illustrated using lines from published novels. Simone Elkes, author of Leaving Paradise, writes “‘I’m gonna sue you if it’s sprained,’ Lenny warns.” This dialogue tag is redundant. The sentence constructs the warning – Lenny will sue (action) if his finger is sprained (event). The dialogue tag “warned” is not justifiable. Redundancy is one of the largest problems with creative dialogue tags. If an author has established a convincing situation, then tags become redundant. If the author hasn’t done the job, then tags become a lazy shortcut.

Creative tags are lazy, allowing the author to tell the reader something. When an author writes, “Are you ready?” he whispered, the readers pause to decide whether they agree with the tag. This is disruptive, and the readers could decide the tag and dialogue are contradictory. Rather than risk this, the writer must create an environment where the tag is implied. The following might be a better alternative: His mouth was close. “Are you ready?” Whispering is implied, and “he whispered” becomes redundant.

There are three main ways to avoid over-creative tags: first, don’t use a tag; second, use action to indicate the speaker; and third, use “said.” To avoid using tags, a writer can include the person’s name in the dialogue, or the characterization can make the speaker evident. One character might use the glottal stop: “moun’ains.” Another character might use unique words: “Oh, gravy.” In these instances, the characters or situation carry the dialogue. Action can also indicate the speaker. Using previous example – His mouth was close – the boy is the speaker because his action is closest to the dialogue. When a tag is needed to avoid confusion, said is the best option.

Dialogue tags are a difficult aspect of writing, because there is a desire to make them more creative. However, simplicity is the best way to make them invisible to an audience – which is the goal.


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