Editing Your Work: Dialogue Tags

Hey! You’ve written a novel! Fantastic! Have you thought about editing?

I’m not sure how many people know this, but I actually edit more than I write. I primarily edit first/early drafts of new writers (and I do quite a bit of beta-reading for fanfiction). I love writing, but many (many) times I find myself enjoying editing more. I love helping people make their stories better, helping their craft so they can really connect with their readers. It’s absolutely amazing to me.

So anyway, this post is going to introduce some of the things I have noticed that many new writers seem to struggle with. (I’ll discuss more topics in later posts.) Even if you aren’t a new writer, a refresher course couldn’t hurt, right?

First up, dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags can be really, really tricky. I’ve actually read published work that had hard-to-read, confusing tags. Basically, your goal is to make sure that your work can be understood by someone else. Preferably a complete stranger. And remember, it is always a good idea to read your work out loud to catch the rhythm and flow of the dialogue. Your characters are speaking to each other, after all! Here are some questions to ask when you’re reviewing your work with an eye towards the dialogue.

1) Is it clear who’s speaking what line?

2) Does each separate speaker have their own paragraph?

3) Am I using a word too repetitiously? (e.g.: does “said” appear on the page more than five times? Is it noticeable when I read the page out loud?)

4) Am I using the correct word? Does reading the page out loud make it sound like I am auditioning for a villain’s role in a melodrama?

#4 may seem a bit on the mean side, but if you find yourself wanting to laugh maniacally or twirl your (real or imaginary) mustache, then you probably are over stretching your thesaurus. Are your characters announcing or recounting or inquiring constantly? These words are good only in the way salt is good. A little bit enhances the flavor. Too much ruins the dish (and possibly gives you some kind of sodium poisoning).

Remember, dialogue tags don’t always have to be some variant of he said or she said. Your characters can perform actions in between their dialogue and that works just as well as an actual dialogue tag.

Here’s an example:

Carolyn noticed Connie sitting on a small cafe table. She waved. “Hey girl!”

Connie looked up, marking her place in her book with her finger. “Carolyn! What are you doing here? It’s before noon.”

Carolyn laughed. “I sometimes get up before noon.”

See? The reader (in this case, you) can easily tell who’s talking, even though there’s no formal he said or she said following the pieces of spoken lines. The action is more than enough to identify who’s speaking.

This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but I find myself asking these same questions every time I start editing a new writer’s work. It is way more likely, I have found, that new writers have more issues with the dialogue tags than stilted or unbelievable dialogue. (Which, kudos to the writers that know how to handle spoken lines! That’s tough enough in itself.)

Last thing to think about: if you think something is off about the way you’ve written a scene and you’re not quite sure how to fix it yourself (even after reading it out loud and asking these questions), show the scene to a friend you trust. Ask them to look over how you’ve tagged the lines. Sometimes, just the act of asking someone to look over your work will help jog your editing muse into finding the right answer.

That’s it for now! Next time I’ll talk about TENSE. (And yes, that deserved to be capitalized.)

Happy editing!

– Eris

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4 thoughts on “Editing Your Work: Dialogue Tags

  1. Dialogue tags are one of my pet peeves, to be honest. But I think I developed that pet peeve reading SO MUCH fan fiction where people didn’t know HOW to use dialogue tags. Sometimes – and only sometimes – can you get away without tags, but you absolutely need very distinct voices for your characters.

    And I’m sorry, but if you have an entire page of dialogue without a single tag, no matter HOW distinct the voices are? A reader is still going to lose track of who said what.

  2. It’s not just fanfiction. A novel that I otherwise very much enjoy has PAGES of conversation with no tags at all. Not even action or description to split up with lines of dialogue. It reads like a script sometimes BUT WITH NO SPEAKERS.

    And this is a PUBLISHED novel. Published by a major publisher, even. Harper, I think.

  3. Pingback: Eris O'Reilly
  4. Alex Hurst says:

    #2 is the MOST important element of keeping things clear and not confusing. I see it goofed a lot in the stuff I edit.

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