The Writing Life
"Just be like
that," she pouted.
"Oh, come on,"
he groaned. "Not this
love me," she replied.
snarled. "That's why I bought
you an eight hundred dollar diamond."
sobbed. "Just take it back.
wrong with our sample above (other than
It's an ailment I like to call "Creative
Dialogue Tag Syndrome"—the writer
relies on creative tags (pouted, groaned,
replied, snarled, sobbed) so
the reader will know how to interpret the
dialogue. What's wrong with
this? Let me count the things:
- The reader must
interpret the tag and evaluate if the
dialogue agrees with the tag. At
best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the
reader decides the two are
contradictory and the writer loses
- It is telling
the reader how the words are said instead
- If the dialogue
is well-written and the accompanying
action is well-chosen, it is
- It is annoying.
lip quivered. "Just be like
his eyes. "Oh, come on," he
said. "Not this again."
said. "That's why I bought you
an eight hundred dollar diamond."
pulled off the ring and shoved
it under his nose. "Just take it back,"
she said, her voice breaking.
nothing's going to help our melodrama too
much, but let's still
examine the techniques used. We scrapped
every creative dialogue tag.
Every one. We replaced each with one of four
- No tag at all.
This allows the power of the words to
stand alone. As long as we know
who's speaking, no law says we must use a
"Shelly's lower lip quivered" replaces
"she pouted." It's more
specific, it allows us to visualize
Shelly, and it's showing, not
- The prosaic
"said." Yes, "said" is boring. It's
overused. In fact, it is so boring
and overused that it's invisible. Just
like "the" and "a" and "his" and
other parts of speech that are used
several times on each page, "said"
slides right past the reader and allows
him to concentrate on what's
important: the action and the dialogue.
- A combination
of "said" and action. This is particularly
effective when interrupting
dialogue, as in the last sentence of the
after example above.
are on the topic of dialogue tags, let's
also talk about correct
punctuation. If a tag is used (preferably
"said," but an occasional
"asked" or "repeated" is permitted), a comma
separates the dialogue
from the tag (see examples in sentences 2
and 4 above). If action only
(no tag at all, as in the first sentence in
the example) is used, it is
considered a separate and complete sentence
and should be punctuated as
such. If it is necessary to interrupt a
dialogue sentence, as in the
last sentence in the above example, use the
tag and action, thus
allowing a comma instead of a period.
love you," she smiled, is never correct.
"Smiled" cannot be a tag;
it is an action. Therefore, it can be
written in one of two ways: "I
love you," she said and smiled. - or - "I
love you." She smiled.
dialogue contains a question, such as: "Who
are you?" he asked, it
is not necessary to punctuate with a
question mark and use "asked" as a
tag. This is personal choice and personally,
I usually use the tag.
one of the most important tools a writer has
to convey character and
to build plot. Using it effectively means
tagging it effectively. Read
the before and after examples given here
aloud. Hear the difference.
Hear the redundancy. Hear the invisibility
of the hardworking "said."
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