Monday, July 25, 2016

Dreaded Dialogue Tags

As an editor, one of my biggest annoyances is the use of unnecessary dialogue tags. What I mean is the obsessive use of “he said” and “she said.”
A friend insists on tagging every instance of dialogue with one of these. For me, this habit is like fingernails on the blackboard. His excuse is he took a writing class years ago where the instructor insisted the word “said” is invisible. I told him I found it annoying, so obviously it wasn’t invisible. He continues to write tagging every instance with “said,” and I refuse to read his books.

So, if you don’t use these tags, how do you let the reader know who is speaking?

First, write distinctive voices for your characters. If you have two characters and each of them has a distinctive speech pattern, rhythm, and POV, it may not be necessary to tag their words at all. Your reader should be able to identify the speaker simply from the word choice and position advocated by each.

If the conversation is between a man and a woman, the words may also be quite obvious.

But in cases where the scene features several characters, it may be necessary to indicate the speaker. One of the easiest ways to accomplish identification is by using actions. People aren’t just talking heads. They move, make gestures, and interact in nonverbal ways.

It helps for the writer to determine what each character does when under stress. Do they bite their nails, twist their hair, tense their jaw or clench a fist? When quizzical, does the character raise an eyebrow or frown or do a double take? Each of these reactions will not only help identify the speaker but also give depth to the character.

Are the characters drinking coffee? They can pick up their cups, take a sip, slam the cup down, etc. These actions can show the emotions involved as well as identify the speaker. If they are walking down the street, they can stop, turn, face another character, wave at a friend, etc.

What about body language? If a character leans forward, they are interested in what the other person is saying. If they lean back, they may either be resistant or they may relax. If characters are comfortable (and young), they may pull their feet up on the chair. If they are resistant, they may fold their arms. These gestures can add a level of subconscious information to the scene.

If characters are angry, they can slam drawers or doors, stomp out, thrust out their chins, etc.

The next time you are tempted to write “he said” or “she said,” try to find a more creative and interesting way to convey the identity of the speaker. Your readers will thank you.

Do you have other ways of identifying speakers? If so, what are they?


  1. Wonderful advice that I talk about in my workshops, but you did a great job here, Lorna.

    1. THanks, Ellen. It's one of my pet peeves--in case you hadn't noticed.

  2. Good advice, Lorna. I don't like the abuse of 'said' or other variations either. Except for the first introductions of the character speaking, they can mostly be avoided.

    1. THanks, John. I notice the good authors I know seldom use them. I do see them in books I edit, though.

  3. Critique groups members who read the book in sections may give other advise, but I agree with you. Thanks, Lynn

    1. In our critique group, the members make suggestions, but the author always has the final say. (We have one member who had a stroke about ten years ago. We have found she sometimes can't remember past the end of the page. In her case, we weigh the suggestion, but only incorporate it if others agree.)