Pesky Dialogue Tags
Tackling the subject of dialogue tags is not hard.
Let’s face it, he/she said, responded, shouted, murmured, whispered, hissed, growled or any other tags are usually not necessary.
Obviously, if you want to convey that the character is talking softly, one can use whisper, but they can also lower/drop their voices.
An exclamation mark could indicate the speaker is shouting, or one could say, he shouted. However, his voice could also reverberate through the room or forest.
Let's pick on Joe who wants a burger.
1) “I want a burger,” Joe said.
This doesn’t tell us anything about Joe or how he feels. He’s just saying he wants a burger. Is he starving and short-tempered as a result, is he a kid about to throw a tantrum if he doesn’t get the burger, or is he an adult, being seductive? The reader has no idea because you, the writer, didn’t clue them in.
2) “I want a burger!” Joe’s face screwed up and he drummed small fists on the countertop.
Face screwed up shows us Joe is about to lose it.
Drummed fists, he’s lost it.
Small fists show us he’s probably a kid, a precocious kid, if he hasn’t been introduced as a kid yet.
Now we know more about this Joe, but he could be hungry or just craving a burger. If we add, “Pressing his stomach as Joe walked into the Burger God diner,” then we know he’s hungry. Omit it, as I did, and readers will draw their own conclusion, probably that the kid is a brat.
3) Stomach growling, Joe walked into the Burger God diner. “I want a burger.” He leaned over the counter and grabbed a fistful of the server’s shirt. “Now!”
Okay, this Joe is probably an adult. Choose words carefully.
Fistful—possibly big hands, definitely aggressive.
“Now!”—curt demand, plus the exclamation mark—pissed off, impatient. He certainly has a short fuse, in this instant, or maybe only when he’s hungry.
4) Joe leaned against the doorway of the Burger God diner, towering over Mary. “I want a burger.” He touched her cheek, his voice a caress.
The seductive Joe.
Leaned against the doorway—casual, relaxed, sure of himself.
Touched her cheek—he’s close to her, possibly attracted to Mary.
Voice a caress—definitely attracted, he’s seducing her, and probably speaking softly. This example is not about the burger at all.
5) “I want a burger.” Joe slung an arm over his buddy’s shoulders, and they stumbled into the Burger God diner, laughing.
This Joe is stoned or drunk. Add more and we can change the dynamics.
6) “I want a burger.” Blood poured from a cut under Joe’s right eye. He slung an arm over his buddy’s shoulders, and they stumbled into the Burger God diner, laughing.
If this Joe were in an accident, it’s unlikely he’d be laughing—unless it were a street race, then maybe, even if he lost and hit a pole.
Perhaps he was in a fight that he and his buddy won and enjoyed.
Take out “laughing,” and it could be anything. But the reader will ask questions.
If it were a car accident, would they want to eat? Doubtful.
If it were a fight and they lost, would they want to eat? Maybe, if they love fighting.
If they were mugged, would they want to eat? Probably not.
If they had a near-death experience? Maybe. Who knows how people react in that situation.
No dialogue tags were used in any of the examples. The only thing a dialogue tag (like said) does is tell us who is talking. In all the above examples we know exactly who is talking, but the bonus is that the careful use of action and description tells the reader more about the character.
Use exclamation marks sparingly.
7) Using said to benefit an action or emotion.
“I want a burger,” Joe said, taking a swing at his buddy. Or, “I want a burger,” Joe said, smiling at the server.
Problem is, unless we add to it with more dialogue, action or emotion, this doesn’t tell us much about Joe.
Note: If dialogue is preceded or follows said or a similar tag, a comma is needed.
Joe said, “I want a burger.”
“I want a burger,” Joe said.
In no way am I saying never use “said.” It’s one of those invisible words like “the” or “and.” But overuse wearies the reader and robs them of information given in a succinct and interesting way. No one likes shopping lists of explanations as to how a character feels or why they said or did something. That’s telling and not showing.
Have fun applying these tips, and please let me know if there are any particular writing problems you struggle with, and I’ll try to help you. I love hearing from people.