Effective Use of Dialogue Tags : WAKE Editing Articles and Advice
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Effective Use of Dialogue Tags

by Weston Kincade on 03/02/14

Dialogue tags

A common problem for writers is the tendency to overuse dialogue tags. There are three things important to keep in mind when constructing good fiction dialogue:

 

Repetitive Dialogue Tags

1. Don’t use the same dialogue tags in close proximity. This creates repetitive word use that should be avoided. The way to do this is most simply to avoid using dialogue tags like “he said” and “she asked” very often.  As an example, consider this:

“How often do I have to do this?” Jameson asked.

Trevor said, “As often as it takes.”

“But for how long?” Jameson asked.

“Look,” Trevor said, “I don’t know how long this will last. It’s for the good of everyone involved, though.”

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll kill her.”

As you can see from this example, “asked” and “said” are repeated so often that this will inevitably begin to grate on readers’ nerves.

 

A Solution that’s really a Problem

2. While some writers avoid this repetition by simply using synonyms, even this attempt to correct the first problem can often become redundant. In addition, using synonyms or too many dialogue tags is indicative of a deeper problem. Consider this:

“How often do I have to do this?” Jameson asked.

Trevor replied, “As often as it takes.”

“But for how long?” Jameson questioned.

“Look,” Trevor explained, “I don’t know how long this will last. It’s for the good of everyone involved, though.”

“Okay,” he said, “I’ll kill her.”

You may or may not have determined this from reading the example, but the problem I’m referring to is telling rather than showing.

 

Show, Don’t Tell

3. Most teachers preach “show, don’t tell,” and that is precisely the problem mentioned in point 2.  Using too many dialogue tags means the author is telling rather than showing. For example, consider the last example compared with this one:

Jameson shook his head and dug his feet in. “How often do I have to do this?”

Trevor was forced to halt and spun, never taking his hand from his friend’s arm.  “As often as it takes.”

“But for how long?”

“Look,” Trevor explained, “I don’t know how long this will last. It’s for the good of everyone involved, though.”

“Okay,” Jameson said, rolling his shoulders and standing up straighter. “I’ll kill her.”

In this example, you can see I’ve eliminated some of the dialogue tags and replaced them with actions in the same paragraph. This way, the actions help show the reader what is happening instead of just telling who says what.

 

I hope these editing recommendations help in your future writing ventures.

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