Friday 8 October 2010


Following from my earlier post on dialogue, I now come, as promised, to dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are the he queried / asked / opined bits that come between the spoken sections. Once beloved of Enid Blyton and many others, their unnecessary use is now regarded as a bad habit and poor style. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s better to repeat he said, than to vary it with questioned, opined, muttered or expostulated. The main reason for this is that it’s too easy to be tempted to tell the reader how the speaker spoke, but often more satisfying for the reader when the attitude is revealed in action. Dialogue tags are just a bit lazy and spoon-feed the reader too much. At the same time, they give the instruction after the reader has read the dialogue: too late, in other words. Sometimes, they're necessary, but you should only use them when they really are.

Let me illustrate with an example of an over-use of dialogue tags:
“Do you want to come in for coffee?” she suggested.
“Is coffee all you mean?” he wondered.
“What else would I mean?” she scoffed.
“Well, just that I thought you might have some biscuits as well,” he responded.
“Aye, right!” she laughed.
Do we really need any of the words outside the speech marks? No: we can manage perfectly well with just the speech, if the dialogue is strong enough. And that’s the key: your dialogue needs to be strong. If it is strong enough, it is strong enough to do the job on its own. Then you will need very few dialogue tags, and then usually only to show who is speaking. (Young children need more dialogue tags, as it is harder for them to follow who is talking.) Dialogue tags should show who is speaking, not how he spoke, unless that feels absolutely necessary.

Often, you can make the dialogue speak for itself, without any dialogue tags. Take a look at the same conversation re-written:
Carmelle looked straight at him. “Coffee?”
“Just coffee?” He stared back, streetlight shadowing his jaw.
“As opposed to?”
“Well, biscuits. I was thinking you probably do a mean chocolate digestive.”
“Aye, right!” How did he manage to make the word digestive sound so desirable? Carmelle felt herself begin to blush.
Finally, just in case you haven’t quite got the point, here is an example of too many dialogue tags with the extra burden of unnecessary adverbs. (I've written about lazy adverbs here. Remember that there's nothing wrong with adverbs per se, just with their lazy use.)
“Listen,” she whispered conspiratorially.
“What?” he interrupted eagerly.
“Nothing,” she replied, hesitantly, deciding that she was not going to tell him after all.
And here is how you could re-write that without dialogue tags or adverbs:
She leant towards him, her hair brushing his cheek. “Listen. I ...”
His pulse quickened. “What?”
Carmelle took a breath. She paused. What if her informant was wrong? She shook her head, looked down at the stem of the glass pressed between her fingers. “Nothing.”
Well? Please tell me you think the second one is better. Yes, the second one uses more words, but it uses them better. It uses verbs and action, shows us how the two characters behaved, allowing us to feel that we are there, to experience what they do. It draws the reader into the conversation, relegating the author (me) to a very appropriate sideline. After all, when you go to a puppet show, do you want to see the puppeteer?


Dan Holloway said...

I get the use of more tags in children's lit, but would you say there's also a place for more varied, as the context provided by the dialogue helps children to learn what words like suggest and scoff mean?

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - Noooooooo! No, children's literature is not there to teach children new words, or teach them anything. It's there to tell great stories. Actually, there is one thing I want to teach children: that books are wonderful things, to be enjoyed for all their richness, pleasure and inspiration.

Besides, if you did want to teach them the meanings of "suggest" and "scoff", or any other words, there are plenty of other great contexts in which to use those words.

It's a terribly common misapprehension that children's books are there to teach vocabulary. Now, reading scheme books do something set out to do this, as teaching materials. I'm not condemning them - there's a place for them and I've written some myself. But the best way for children to increase their vocab is through reading great stories, written brilliantly, (while being appropriate to their level of reading, at least until they have functional literacy, at which point anything goes).

Joanna St. James said...

I am into edits right now and I found this really helpful, thank you

Ebony McKenna. said...

No, tags shouldn't be overused used in children's lit either.

If dialogue must be read a certain way, then put that clue BEFORE the dialogue - as Nicola has done - ie, She leans in and keeps her voice low, 'Listen . . .'

It shows you what's going on.
as opposed to:

'Listen' she whispered conspiratorially.

Tells you how you should have read it.

If you add too many tags, it tires the reader out, because you're constantly telling them HOW they should have read it, AFTER they've read it. The story will flow beautifully if you don't hit your reader over the head with exposition.

Nick Cross said...

Very elegantly put, Nicola. I gave up dialogue tags years ago (yes, for children's fiction) and have never looked back!

Dan Holloway said...

so you're saying you're ambivalent about it, right? :)

Mark Jones said...

Coolio. This makes me happy as I only put them in to help avoid confusion, say a conversation between three people.

Quite interested on how to handle conversations between multiple people.

Sarah Hilary said...

Georgette Heyer was very fond of the dialogue tag "ejaculated" as in "Godsooth madam!" he ejaculated.

This prompted me, at the age of 10, to use it in a spy story written for a friend: "A traitor!" he ejaculated.

My friend's response was all the lesson I ever needed in how to avoid tags like this in future. (Word verification is "comed" - how apt.)

Mark Jones said...

@Sarah Hilary

Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson ejaculated all over the place from what I remember.

They were simpler times...

Sarah Hilary said...

@Mark You're quite right. I can't think of a Holmes/Watson encounter in which one or the other didn't ejaculate at some point. Simpler, happier times.

Averill Buchanan said...

I'm currently editing a novel for an author nwho has put I said, He said, BEFORE the dialogue, the whole way through the book. I found it very disconcerting & difficult to read. But I'm having trouble convincing the author that the tags, when used, should come after the speech, otherwise it's VERY hard work for the reader. The novel's written in the first person, and the author feels that putting the tags before the dialogue makes it sound as though the story that unfolds "is casually spoken off the top one's head."

Whirlochre said...

At risk of sounding like a heretic doomed to the literary dustbin of oblivion, I'm going to stick up for dialogue tags.

The examples you give are truly horrendous, and true horrendousness has no place in literature (or writing of any kind).

My problem is that I'm not much for this new tag-free vogue — and I do believe it is a vogue rather than a storytelling truth finally uncovered and set free.

Even when reading acclaimed writers, I struggle sometimes to figure out who is saying what. More generally, I find the prose reduced to a series of fragmented bursts. As a reader, I prefer skillfully deployed dialogue tags to this tag-free way of showing me who's saying what.

So I'm viewing this as a trend, which will give way to something else in the fullness of time, just as Westerns with whooping Indians came and went.

I don't believe this is the Holy Grail of dialogue — it's one way of solving the problem which currently has the nod.

As for Enid Blyton, it's the bloody talking rabbits that make her work mighty difficult to follow.

sheilamcperry said...

I was at a writing workshop once where the tutor used an extract from something by Hemingway to illustrate that dialogue tags were unnecessary. Unfortunately she and the person who was helping her read it out got completely confused halfway through about who was meant to be saying what, due to the complete lack of tags! Unless maybe she was actually trying to illustrate the opposite of what she said she was doing... Hmm. Hadn't thought of that.
Anyway, I find with reading long chunks of dialogue that I can only remember for a limited time who is saying what, so every few sentences I find I do need a tag, otherwise I have to retrace my footsteps until I work it out. Of course, it depends also how gripping the dialogue itself is.

Laura S. said...

Great examples! Thanks for sharing.

Sally Zigmond said...

That's why, Sheila, it's best to find a happy medium. You can only dispense totally with dialogue tags for a short while and never when there are more than two people involved.

And using one form of tag--either all before or all afterwards--is awful.

Writing is more about how things sound than one might think. Keep reading what you write out aloud to oneself. Clunkiness is very audible. Smoothness is silent.

Hart Johnson said...

I get this... I really do. And I try to use things like thoughts, actions and facial expressions in there. There is one place though, where he said she said becomes IMPERATIVE (parties... when there are a LOT of possible speakers, and giving every one of them an action makes the reader lose the conversation entirely)

and there is one TYPE of tag I object to being objected against... synonyms that imply the HOW. whispered, shouted, shrieked, screamed, muttered (my characters mutter a lot)--those words in a single word GIVE the action while still being a tag... so yes. I object to objections...

*cough* Okay. I'm done now. (almost completely I agree with you)

Dan Holloway said...

At the risk of being repetitious I'll say what I always do about dialogue tags - they can be used for so much more than saying who said what. Maybe it's just a lit fic thing, maybe it's not, but if you care about the rhythm, the musicality of your language, you can use "s/he said/says" to make your words SOUND right - in particular to help your sentences resolve properly. Take:
"When we're on the phone at midnight you suck the darkness from the sky."
This resolves so mcuh better as
"When we're on the phone at midnigh," he says, "you suck the darkness form the sky."

you can also use tags to show subtle nuanced differences, rather like a breathing in music

"I just don't know if I love you anymore"
we get a very different scene as
"I just don't know," he said, "if I love you anymore"

Kath McGurl said...

Good post, and wholly agree about avoiding unnecessary dialogue tags. But I don't think Blyton overused them - she tended to stick to he/she said. Her books were often banned from school libraries for using too simple language which didn't stretch young readers' comprehension, as I recall. I may be remembering wrongly, but I do know that there was no Blyton in my primary school library, in the 70s.
Which made me very sad, and poor because I had to go buy them myself.

catdownunder said...

Aagghhh!!!!! I gave a young writer a helping hand the other day. They were actually given an exercise intended to make them use such words...use them to excess. She wrote it that way at first. Then she read it and looked at me and said, "It sounds wrong." (I had her print it off and then edit out the excess and she took both versions to school.)

J.T. Webster said...

"It draws the reader into the conversation, relegating the author (me) to a very appropriate sideline. After all, when you go to a puppet show, do you want to see the puppeteer?"

This is a real gem Nicola, that could be applied to more than just dialogue tags, for example over-writing.
Words shouldn't stand between the story and the reader, they should melt away to be replaced by images in the readers mind.

George M. Frost said...

Been following this blog of yours for quite a while now, but I've never once left a comment. And now that I finally am, I feel a bit remiss, because my first comment is going to disagree with the points you've made. Usually, I tend to agree with you or, failing that, am later persuaded.

But oh well.

As a few other folks have said, dialogue tags have been getting a lot of heat, lately, and perhaps unreasonably so. Yes, it's true that you don't need to use tags all the time in order for your reader to know who is saying what, but even if you do, readers don't generally care, unless you're also throwing in mountains of adverbs.

The reason for this, I think, is because dialogue tags are often entirely "skippable" to any experienced reader. So much so, in fact, that they become nigh invisible. He said, she said, if we already know, we skip over it.

And perhaps this is where the argument for removing dialogue tags finds its footing. Surely, if people skip the tags, then we should just not put them in at all. Sensible enough.

However, it's presumptuous to assume that everyone skips them. And if everyone does, it makes no difference. The tags would neither add nor take anything away from the text. They are not useful, in this case, but neither are they harmful.

And yet, even still, there's more to be said for or against dialogue tags. For instance, even if tags are skipped, they do still provide a kind of pause in the rhythm of the text, which may be either good or bad. Or neither. Textual rhythm is such a weird, gray area, after all. 's probably best just to leave it up to the author's own discretion.

So, perhaps a more specific example would be helpful:

"Would you like some coffee?" she asked.
"Nah, coffee makes me gassy," he said, patting his stomach.
"Lovely," she said dryly. "Something else, then?"
"I'm good, thanks."

I would argue that this slice of dialogue here makes successful use of everything mentioned in your post, Nicola. That is: tags, the exemption of tags, a bit of description, and an adverb. Everything is used in moderation and may, of course, be rearranged or edited however you like to make it better, but as it is, I think it works just fine.

And heck, if you further account for whatever text may come before or after that little piece of dialogue, then the matter becomes even more complicated. Context 'n all that.

But I guess I'm done rambling now. I said I disagreed with you, but it was only marginally so, I s'pose.

Anyway. Thanks for maintaining both an intelligent and intelligible blog.

Mike said...

One could take the elimination of dialogue tags a bit further and do away with quotation marks, as Tobias Woolff does in 'Old School'.

His writing is of a sufficiently high standard so that the reader can accurately infer when a character is speaking. It's an impressive technique and surprisingly naturalistic technique. Yet Why?' I interrogated myself quizzically.

I'd counter that while one can identify a novice writer through over-use of speech tags, one might almost easily be able to identify one who's ploughing through self-help books and creative writing classes by the complete absence of dialogue tags or just constant 'he said', 'she said'.

Nicola Morgan said...

Whirlochre - I'm certainly not into any tag-free vogue either. All I've said is that tags should be used when necessary. As with other types of words. My point is that often they are not only not necessary but are an intrusion. Never would I suggest omitting dialogue tags when they helped the reader and I agree that it's very annoying to have to try to work out who's speaking, often meaning that we have to keep going back and almost ticking off the speakers on our fingers.

So, you're not being a heretic because you haven't disagreed with me, I don't think! It's ALL about doing what's right for the context. I very rarely say anything else, in fact.

Sally has helpfully set Sheila straight on what I meant, too - thank you!

Several of you have given great examples of both when tags work well and also of alternatives which are, in your examples, better. That's exactly the point: it's about thinking of what's best for the situation.

Hart - exactly, which is why have have NEVER said you shouldn't use "he said" etc. Just that you should think about when it's necessary and desirable.

MJ Galleon - I'm struggling to see where you disagree with me! Your "skippable" dialogue tags are the very ones I'm suggesting can go. I do disagree that your alteration of my bit of dialogue improves it, though that's a small point and, as you suggest, would be up to each writer.

Thing is, when you say "probably best just to leave it up to the author's own discretion" - EXACTLY. Who else's discretion could we rely on? But the problem is that in order to have good discretion the writer needs to be aware of the effects of his/her writing, and those of you (like you( who are thinking carefully about dialogue tags and whether to include them or not are likely to get it right. Too many new writers don't even realise there's an issue. There IS an issue - actually several issues. The issues are flow, sense, rhythm, patronising the reader, and interfering with the intake of meaning.

Thanks for your nice comments about the blog! I was away doing events for 48 hours so didn't get to reply till now.

Mike - I agree absolutely with your last point especially. Moderation in all things.

Dan - ;-) (re being ambivalent). Agree hugely with your point about breaking the sentence with a tag to create a lovely rhythm.

badas2010 said...

I've been reading about this a lot recently and as I'm in the middle of a huge editing job on everything I've ever written I've become very aware of it.
I've found that my earlier writing seemed to me and mine to flow smoothly and now I've de-adverbed and de-tagged it seems more jerky!
Is. A. Puzzlement!

michael 'hazeltree' thompson said...

but please tell us what happened next? Did Carmelle...

Julie Musil said...

Awesome examples! Now I want to know what happened!

Nicola Morgan said...

badas2010 - firstly, what your family/friends think is entirely irrelevant unless they actually know what they're looking for, as critics, not as ordinary readers. (Sorry). Now, if you really think it's now jerky, clearly you have taken out the wrong things. (Though jerky can also be interesting...) You have to first know the rules, and then decide how to apply them. I tell yu the rules, you decide how to apply them... (sorry!).

Michael and Julie - ah, Carmelle is a character I'm developing for a possible novel. In answer to whether she does, oh gosh yes, she DOES!

David John Griffin said...

Really good post, I think, Nicola; just love: "After all, when you go to a puppet show, do you want to see the puppeteer?" So true, and applied to the author's voice as well, sure you'd agree. Transparency, I think it's called?


JaneF said...

Great discussions! I love this from jtwebster books:

Words shouldn't stand between the story and the reader, they should melt away to be replaced by images in the reader's mind.

That sums up the perfect read for me.

badas2010: maybe your problem is related to the 'textual rhythm' thing that M. J. Galleon mentions. I often find, after I've cut stuff from a passage of text (whether dialogue tags or anything else), that it no longer 'scans' properly and I have to go back and rewrite it to restore its rhythm. Sometimes just a few tweaks are enough to do that.

Whirlochre said...

Glad to be as sparrows atop the telephone wire of mutual twittering.

Carolina M. Valdez Schneider said...

Aw, fabulous post. Brilliant examples.