The Dos and Don’ts of Dialogue Tags

by Ryan Lanz

Writers use dialogue tags constantly. In fact, we use them so often that readers all but gloss over them. They should be invisible. However, there are ways to misuse them and make them stand out.

In an effort to avoid that, let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags. Toward the end of “Tag travesties” is something I sorely wish someone had told me before I started writing.

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Why Do We Use Dialogue Tags?

The simple answer is that we use them to indicate who’s speaking. In visual media, such as movies or television, the viewer can easily tell who’s talking by lip movement and camera angles. When reading a book, obviously that’s not an option.

Tag Travesties

There are certainly ways to misuse dialogue tags. When I was a new writer, I felt compelled to overwrite. I ‘m sure every new writer goes through a version of this. I observed how successful writers used simple tags like “said/asked” and thought to myself, that’s boring. I’m going to be an awesome writer by making them more interesting. You don’t have to admit it aloud, writers, but we all know that most of us have. Let’s look at an example of this:

  • “We can’t cross this river,” Alanna exclaimed repugnantly.
  • John crossed the room and shouted disgustedly, “I’ll never take you with me.”
  • “This has been the worst day ever,” Susie cried angrily.

For those of you who still aren’t convinced, let’s up the dosage with a paragraph:

Hank crossed the room and sat down. “We should have never waited this long for a table,” he seethed, leaning over to glare at her. 
“If you wanted a better spot, you should have called ahead for a reservation,” Trudy returned pointedly.
“Well, perhaps if you didn’t take so long to get ready, I could have,” he countered dryly.

Can you imagine reading an entire book like that? *shiver*

So why do new writers feel the urge to be that . . . creative with their dialogue tags? Back in the beginning, I thought the typical tags of “said/asked” were too boring and dull. It didn’t take me long to realize that dull (in this context) is the point.

Image your words as a window pane of glass, and the story is behind it. Your words are merely the lens that your story is seen through. The thicker the words, the cloudier the glass gets. If you use huge words, purple prose, or crazy dialogue tags, then all you’re doing is fogging up the glass through which your reader is trying to view your story. The goal is to draw as little attention to your actual words as possible; therefore, you keep the glass as clear as possible, so that the reader focuses on the story. Using tags like “said/asked” are so clear, they’re virtually invisible.

Now, does that mean that you can’t use anything else? Of course not. Let’s look further.

Alternate Dialogue Tags

Some authors say to never use anything other than “said/asked,” while others say to heck with the rules and use whatever you want. Some genres (such as romance) are more forgiving about using alternate dialogue tags. I take a more pragmatic approach to it. I sometimes use lines like:

“I’m glad we got out of there,” she breathed.

The very important question is how often. I compare adverbs and alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice. Some is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. Imagine a cake mix with a liter of vanilla flavoring, rather than the normal tablespoon. The more often you use anything other than “said/asked,” the stronger the flavor. If it’s too powerful, it’ll tug the reader away from the story and spotlights those words. In a full length book of around 85,000 words, I personally use alternate dialogue tags only around a few dozen times total.

By saving them, the pleasant side effect is that when I do use them, they pack more of an emotional punch.


Related: How to Write Natural Dialogue



Action Beats

I have a love affair with action beats. Used effectively, they can be another great way to announce who’s talking, yet at the same time add some movement or blocking to a scene. For example:

Looking down, Katie ran a finger around the edge of the mug. “We need to talk.”

That added some nice flavor to the scene, and you know who spoke. The only caveat is to be careful of not using too many action beats, as it does slow down the pacing a tiny bit. If you’re writing a bantering sequence, for example, you wouldn’t want to use a lot of action beats so as to keep the pacing quick.

Dos and Don’ts

Sometimes, action beats and dialogue tags have misused punctuation. I’ll give some examples.

  • “Please don’t touch that.” She said, blocking the display. (Incorrect)
  • “Let’s head to the beach,” he said as he grabbed a towel. (Correct)
  • Sam motioned for everyone to come closer, “Take a look at this.” (Incorrect)
  • Debbie handed over the magnifying glass. “Do you see the mossy film on the top?” (Correct)

Conclusion

Like many things in a story/novel, it’s all about balance. Try alternating actions beats, dialogue tags, and even no tags at all when it’s clear who’s speaking. By changing it up, it’ll make it so that no one method is obvious.

Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on TwitterFacebook, and Tumblr

Image courtesy of Onnola via Flickr, Creative Commons.

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Barcelona, Spain: A Photojournal

Well, yes… I’ve been home for a couple weeks now, but the backlog of work has been crippling (not to mention I’m working on a new project that has been demanding all of my free time!). Check out these photos from Barcelona, Spain!

We visited the Torre Agbar and saw Gaudi’s work at the Sagrada Familia and the Park Guell. Those pictures inside the church are from La Sagrada Familia, and let’s say that many fantasy scenes will be inspired from my visit that day. We also visited the small nation of Andorra (see the 12th century chapel among the mountains), and when we weren’t walking the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona, we ate tapas (small plates) by the ocean.

Stay tuned for writing-related posts to come soon!

Gauteng & North West Province: A Photojournal

Part three of the trip: A quick stop in Johannesburg in Gauteng province before entering the bush lodge in North West province. At the bush lodge, we went on game drives and got up close and personal with giraffes, baby lions, cheetahs, zebras, and elephants (to name a few). After time out in the bush, we were back in Johannesburg and got lucky enough to watch traditional Tswana dancers in Neighbourgoods Market.

Cape Town: A Photojournal

Things I did in Cape Town: a cheetah encounter, shark cage diving, exploring Melkbosstrand at sunset, Bettysbaai penguins, Signal Hill and Table Mountain, Chapman’s Peak, Muizenburg market, and St. James.

12 Hours in Frankfurt: A Photojournal

We had a 12-hour layover in Frankfurt, Germany on the way to South Africa. We arrived in the Hauptbahnhof, walked around downtown, and ate in Römerburg. Check out my best photos!

 

Travel & Writing

It’s that time again! This Saturday, I will be leaving on a jet plane and heading on a month-long backpacking trip to South Africa and Spain. Not to worry, friends, while I am not the greatest at following a blogging schedule (read: I suck pretty hard), I am planning on uploading a few photo journal posts throughout my trip. Minimal effort for me, good travel photos for you!

But now: the point. Traveling so soon has me in a travel mood. Consequently, being in a travel mood puts me in a writing mood. Why, you ask? Shouldn’t I be YouTube spiraling and watching every video I can find on my backpacking destinations?

Yes, I should, but instead, I feel so inspired. For me, traveling has a huge impact on my writing and is definitely the pick-me-up I need when I feel uninspired. In fact, there are huge benefits for writers who travel, even if it’s only for a couple days away.

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African Sun, here I come!

Traveling Calms You

While this may not be the case for everyone, traveling can be calming. For me, it’s waiting in an airport and people watching. It’s sitting on a beach with a book and having absolutely no plan for the day. It’s waking up on any random day and asking a travel companion “what are we doing today?” knowing that we could do anything we like or nothing at all.

Travel has a way of relaxing people, even on the busiest of city streets. And guess what? Being relaxed is a great way to write. Ideas form easier, the words come smoother, and writing seems less like a chore and more like a spa massage.

Besides, have you ever tried writing while stressed out? Yeah, I’ve gone on DELETE-EVERYTHING rampages too…

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So beach. Much calming.

Traveling Exposes You to New People & Different Cultures

My absolute favorite part of traveling is the new people I meet and the interesting cultures I experience. Living in Canada, sometimes it’s easy to forget that people all around the world live in a completely different way than I do. Beliefs, traditions, and existences vastly different from our own occur EVERYWHERE, and it’s a pity not to experience them.

But why is this beneficial for our writing? Two reasons. Number One: characters are the soul of our writing, and what better way to create interesting characters than to meet interesting people? Number Two: a huge aspect of the fiction industry is the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre, and while it may be hard to travel to the moon or Westeros for inspiration for your next novel, a quick flight to a foreign country could inspire the location of your next piece.

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Oh, what’s that? The scene of your next novel?

Traveling Enhances Your Prose

Speaking of locations, traveling allows you to better describe the setting of your story. Novel set in a windswept, mountain town? Time to see the Rockies or the Alps. Medieval, seafaring city on the ocean? Round trip to Croatia. What about the desert? Egypt it is.

I find it way easier to more accurately describe the setting of my novel if I’ve actually been to a place that has a similar landscape. Besides, that’s why I take so many photos. When I get home and I’m working on setting in my prose, I can look at the photos and remember not just how a place looked, but also how a place smelled and felt.

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A great setting for a novel… Or just a good place to write it!

Traveling Puts Life (and Writing) in Perspective

One of the best feelings traveling gives is the feeling of being small and insignificant.

Sounds depressing, right? Well, hear me out.

In our everyday lives, it’s really easy to get wrapped up on everyday things: wake, eat, drive to work, do work, eat lunch, do work, come home, make dinner, watch Netflix, drink wine, sleep… The cycle goes on and on. Worse: we toil over the news, toil over social media, toil over whatever drama Sassy Sally or Donald Downer is conjuring up.

But when you travel, that cycle gets interrupted. You experience new and exciting things. Best of all, traveling helps you put your whole life into perspective: you realize that there are billions of other people on this Earth, and their lives can be extremely different than yours. Further, these people exist without being influenced by your life (or Sassy Sally’s drama) whatsoever. To me, that’s really humbling, and when I’m in a writing rut, it comforts me to think that somewhere out there, there are people facing life in all its forms, and suddenly, my life doesn’t seem so overwhelming, and I can get back to what I find important.

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Oh, how small we really are.

Story Ideas Can Strike at Any Time!

This one is self-explanatory. With travel opening up the world to you, it also opens your mind to new story ideas. These can come while people watching at the airport, overhearing a discussion at a restaurant in Bangkok, or in the bush in Mozambique, waiting for a lioness to show her face.

In a world of 8 billion people, there are at least 8 billion stories, and by traveling, you give yourself the opportunity to one you may not have heard before.

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So, get out there, writer! Experience something new! Where are your favorite places to travel for writing inspiration?

 

Dear Writer: STOP Releasing So Many Novels!

As I’m sure you know, dear readers (or Mom… Hi, Mom!), I’ve come to a couple realizations over the past year or so since the release of my first novel. The biggest revelation, the one where I decided to go back to writing for myself, I’ve written about extensively already, and you can read that post here (plus, there’s a potato! Who doesn’t like potatoes?!).

Scalloped Potatoes

Hmm… Scalloped potatoes…

But the focus of this post will be on something I’ve wanted to say for a long time, but I’ve been a little wary of the potential backlash I might face. I’d first like to preface this by saying that everyone’s writing/publishing journey is different. Every individual writer is unique, and what works well for one writer may not work well for another. And that’s two-fold: I acknowledge that what I’m about to say is simply my opinion, and it by no means is meant to shame other authors or demean their work. Besides, you do you, fellow writer, you. There are no rules in writing. Well, there are, but you know…

Okay, deep breath. Here goes.

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SLOW DOWN!

I’m not on board with the culture of write-fast, publish-much that’s taken hold of the publishing industry lately. Okay, amendment: I’m not on board with the culture of write-fast, publish-much that’s taking place in the indie author sphere (because, let’s be real, long production times are the norm, albeit necessary, with a traditional publisher).

What is the write-fastpublish-much culture, you ask? Today in the publishing industry, especially in the indie-author market, quantity is king. I’m not saying that quality isn’t being taken into account, because to some extent it probably is, but there is a new mantra for indie authors like myself: write a lot and publish as often as possible. That means that some authors are publishing three or more novels a year, sometimes as many as ten novels a year.

“But that’s not a bad thing, Michael,” you protest. “If I write three or more novels a year, and I’m able to release them, whether through a small press or a self-publisher or on creased rolls of toilet paper, why shouldn’t I? Besides, I’m building my brand, and to expedite the process, I’m growing a catalog  of my titles so that readers can discover my work.”

Well, in my opinion, there is a big problem with that mentality.

The Eternal Quality vs. Quantity Conundrum

I’m not going to lie, I judge authors who feel the need to release more than two books a year. Okay, second amendment (and I’ll be generous): I judge authors who release three or more books within a year ESPECIALLY if the three books are not part of the same series. I’m sorry: a writing career shouldn’t be a puppy mill of stream-of-consciousness vanity projects. I just don’t see how anyone has the time to publish more than three novels a year AND maintain consistent literary quality.

To me, releasing novels rapid-fire-style is indicative of premature work. If five or ten or *gasp* fifteen individual novels are being released per year, how much time was spent on each one? How many drafts did you write? How long did you spend on developmental editing? Copy editing? Proofreading? Getting notes from beta-readers? What about that break you should take between the final edit and the final read-through to clear your palate? I’m pretty sure a single evening of binge-watching Netflix doesn’t count.

Sure, if you’re a full-time writer and you have a really quick team of beta-reader/editor-robots, you could have a really good, polished manuscript in a year. Eight months if you’re lucky. But a quality novel every month and a half? I just don’t believe it’s possible. Sure, if you have a back catalog of novels you’ve written since childhood and you think they’re all ready to go at the same time, by all means, release away. But three or more is overwhelming, and did you ever think that maybe those back-cataloged books are in the past for a reason?

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“You get a new novel! And YOU get a new novel! NEW NOVELS FOR EVERYONE!”

So, where’s the sweet spot? How many novels should you release a year in order to ensure highest quality? I don’t know, frankly. But I have a hunch: unless you’re J.K. Rowling or Shakespeare or Stephen King, or you’ve had independent third parties verify your equivalency, I’d focus more on the quality of your work and not on the quantity if I were you.

And Now: A Moment for Cheese

Because let’s be real. The number of books released in a year is just that: a number. The ratio of novels to years is arbitrary. But you know what’s not? Quality. In my opinion, books are like good cheese or wine. Good cheese and wine need time to grow–time to mature. That’s why older cheeses and older wines are more expensive: they’re better because they’ve been given time to sort their sh*t out. I’m just doubtful that the sixth novel you’ve released this year is any good.

What’s the rush for? Take your time. Be the aged cheddar of the publishing industry: digestable and dependable and a classic. Be the brie: smooth and double-creamed served with red pepper jam. Hell, be blue cheese: an acquired taste but oh-so-prolific.

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Please excuse my drooling.

Just don’t be processed cheese. Got it?

But wait!

I’m not saying it’s not possible to draft a novel in a month or less. That happens all the time, and even though sometimes I take  upwards of a year to complete the first draft of one of my novels, I know that is not the norm. Drafting a novel quickly is not the problem; rather, the problem is releasing everything that touches a Word document within six months of conception in an attempt to inflate the number of works attached to your name.

What do you think? Is it a good idea to release a lot of novels in a short time span? How many books will you release this year?