Invisible Words: Dialogue Tags and Why You Don’t Need Them (Much)

You’ve probably heard this piece of advice before, “Don’t use descriptive dialogue tags. Use only said and ask.” And that’s good advice. It makes a lot of sense because it is really jarring to read something like this:

John quipped, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah gasped, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John grumbled.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” whispered Sarah.

John paused. He exclaimed, “Sure!”

Yeah, that’s terrible. So, how are we supposed to do it? Like this:

John said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah said, “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun,” John said.

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex,” said Sarah.

John paused. He said, “Sure!”

The reason why the second sample was better than the first is that the words said (and ask if used) are invisible to the reader, and it shifted the emotion in the dialogue for the reader to figure. However, sometimes this can be jarring. Why? Because examine all those times I used the names John and Sarah. If I keep writing, John, John, John, Sarah, Sarah, Sarah, guess what your brain is likely to tune out or keep stumbling over?

And that’s what this post is all about–provide you another tip on style by omitting said and ask as much as possible. Let’s redo the example.

John snapped his fingers. “I know, let’s go to the movies!”

Sarah lifted a hand to her mouth. “But we’re not allowed. It’s against God’s law!”

“We never get to have any fun.”

“We could just go over to those bushes and have sex.”

“Sure!”

In the last example, I’ve picked up the pacing on this and used a little body language to instead of a dialogue tag. Second, I eliminated the dialogue tags in the last three lines.

So how does this help you? Here’s how this stylistic approach can improve your writing.

It strengthens your showing, not telling. What did you think of when John snapped his fingers and then said, “I know, let’s go to the movies!”? He hit upon an idea is what most of you will say, but some of you will have a different opinion, and that’s fine.

Since our brains are trained to ignore the words said and ask, just get rid of them anyways. Use them sparingly, but for the most part, you don’t need them. Warning: you don’t want to get yourself into “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”. You do need to show who is talking. Here is an example:

Samdel patted his rider’s coat, lifted out the lapel, retrieving a cigar. “What were you saying, girl?”

“I hate it when you smoke those thrice-damn things around me!”

“Huh. A demon said that to me once.”

You know right off that Samdel is the first person who started this part of the conversation with the narrator telling he’s fishing out a cigar. Then, we know whomever he’s talking to responds, and then he says something back.

Now, when does this not work really well? When you have three or more people involved in conversation. Still, you can eliminate a great deal of said and ask by utilizing your prose to indicate actions from all your characters, but if you need to move rather quickly, you’re better served by using said and ask to ensure your reader doesn’t get confused or lost in the conversation. Another problem some writers have created when using this method is “floating heads” or “talking-bubble-head-syndrome”, and I covered that topic in an earlier post.

In short, here’s a tip on honing in a stylistic choice to remove mundane words and help your prose with more showing than telling.

Happy writing!

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