My next writing tips post is on dialogue. This is a huge topic for writers, as it can be very challenging to come up with witty, emotional, and yet realistic conversations between two fictional characters.
Luckily, there’s an easy place to start, and that is with ‘said’. This is the most simple dialogue tag in the history of ever, and that is why ‘said’ has been murdered time and time again, cut out from writing, and pushed to the side by fancier words, like whispered, grumbled, replied, shouted, etc.
Fancier writing is not always better writing. In fact… it almost never is.
I’m going to explain today, why you should always always always use said as your dialogue tag, if you insist on putting a dialogue tag at all.
First… some background. What is a dialogue tag?
Well, it’s precisely as its name suggests… a tag, or a stamp, marking dialogue as who said it. It is merely there to orient the reader, and sometimes necessary to clarify who or what has spoken. ex, “I’m hungry,” she said.
Left without any context at all, if I had just written, “I’m hungry,” you might have been confused, and wondered who on earth was talking. That is the purpose of a dialogue tag, and its only purpose.
A few years back (and my Mom, who is an English major, can attest to this) it was very looked down upon to use the word said. You had to use something more ‘descriptive’. However, being descriptive is not the job of a dialogue tag. That is the author’s job. The dialogue tag is there to orient the readers, and that’s it.
However… who even really reads the dialogue tags… unless they’re confused? No one. Let’s be honest here, when you read dialogue, you naturally skip over the tags.
Here is an example of some dialogue:
Now that you’ve read through it, let’s look at how dialogue tends to look to our brains:
Notice how we usually just brush over the ‘he said, she said, they replied, he asked’ sort of thing? That’s because the actual dialogue is what is more interesting to us. Unless we’re confused and want to know who exactly is talking, we’ll generally just read what is being said, and what is being done by those who said it.
So if readers just skip over this anyways, why don’t we focus less on making the skipped stuff more fancy when it’s just going to get skipped anyways, and focus more on adding in things that will actually be read.
Having the characters do stuff during dialogue is awesome. Have them scratch their face or their head, have them huff, puff, and sigh. Have them shift from foot to foot, or cough, or glance around the room. Just please don’t make them ‘sigh’ or ‘huff’ the dialogue! This turns a would be description into an ignored tag.
Don’t use: “I hate this,” he sighed.
Use: He loosed a breath. “I hate this.”
See the difference there? The sighing becomes an action, and a more descriptive one, whereas in the first sentence, the sighing was just a method for the character to say something. It was a dialogue tag, and therefore ignored.
Here is our same excerpt of dialogue, but fixed up a bit:
In this example, we only have one dialogue tag, and it’s only to break up what’s being said, and orient the reader. It’s still ignored mostly, but now it doesn’t restrict the writing flow with wordiness.
We also have some more descriptive sentences in here, like the action of leaning against the doorframe. Lastly, instead of clogging up the writing with the horrid ‘-ly’ word: softly, I deleted the last dialogue tag all together, as it wasn’t necessary.
As you can see, keeping it just to the dialogue is a lot better than having tags. Tags are only there to keep it clear and understandable. If using tags….. Always always always just use said!
When you can, avoid dialogue tags altogether. They burden the reader with words they just tend to skip anyways.
For your viewing pleasure, here is an example of well done dialogue : )
So instead of using the dialogue tags to add description, really describe! Add some sentences in there of what the characters are actually doing. This will end up making your writing stronger than just a few wannabe ‘said’ replacements.
Bring said back to life, and stop trying to cover it up with frilly words.
Again, writing is a craft that takes time and practice. A lot of practice. Keep at it.
Professionals are the amateurs who didn’t give up.
All the best, and more to come soon!