In Defense of Dialogue Tags

This weekend I read a book I thought I would love.

The opening pages hooked me.

There wasn’t a single dialogue tag. Not one. The nonverbals were epic.

But then I kept reading.

Eventually…about 30 pages in…it felt like one big run-on sentence and I found myself a little distraught.

I’d imagined genius at work on those pages…and to a degree I guess it was. It ‘s a lot of work putting setting, action and physical characteristic description between bits of a conversation in dialogue and NOT being redundant and NOT using he said or she said or anything anywhere close to that. (For help on nonverbals, click here).

We all know there are better ways to SHOW our characters in a scene, but for some of us, it’s a task.

So…as I studied those opening pages, (cause that’s what I do now…I study the writing when I read, LOL), I felt as if I was about to add some great tool to my writing toolbox. A big, fat hammer.

I found no such thing. It was more like a rusty nail.

I realized that, as a reader, I really like dialogue tags. They break up passages. And I know…everyone says they are unnecessary, but I can’t help but like them. I think they get a bad rap. Maybe it’s because I’ve read so many books with them that reading one without them simply felt wrong.

I like he laughed and he growled. I like she said, hands fisting at her sides. I even like I asked, warily.

These tags SHOW me something without being too wordy. Sprinkled PURPOSELY, they add to the text by breaking it up and clarifying who’s speaking. That was my problem with the no-dialogue-tag book. Sometimes there were three or four paragraphs between the character’s dialogue and I simply forgot who was speaking and what had even been said. I ended up backtracking to see who said what. I also often didn’t get a good sense of the characters or setting. There was so much intelligent language and so many metaphors that I found myself focusing more on the actual words in between than the dialogue itself or the people behind it.

So…my conclusion? I guess I like my dialogue mixed. I enjoy good nonverbals, but I like everything to have meaning. And of course…I use dialogue tags. I just use them in moderation. Here’s an example from my WIP:
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I’m still not sure if it was bravery or stupidity that made me do what I did next. I wanted to go. Felt I had a right. It was my mother we were looking for. He’d said I was a liability until I knew how to properly use my powers, a death waiting to happen. But I had to try. 

“Where do you think you’re going?” I shouted. “I’m not staying behind. Not again.” Control. I had it, right? He had to do what I said yet my heart thundered against my rib cage anyway. Controlling him was like controlling a wild tiger. Not impossible, but dangerous as hell and requiring lots of practice of which I’d had zero. If only I had a cage and a whip. 

Body rigid at my words, Gabriel stopped moving toward the door. His boot heel creaked against the old wood floor as he turned. It was a slow, deliberate movement that reeked of barely tamed violence. Electricity saturated the air of the drafty room, every hair on my body raised in alarm.  

Finally, that mass of hulking man faced me once again. “Don’t. Even. Think It.” His words rumbled from the deep, dark place I was sure I would some day have to visit. After seeing the brutal look on his face, I didn’t want today to be that day. I wasn’t ready and I knew it.  

I just stood there, losing the battle of deadly gazes happening between us. Fear crept up and leaked from my eyes. Great. Just great. It was a single, lowly tear, but it was enough to give me away. I wanted to wipe it with my sleeve but didn’t dare acknowledge it. 

There wasn’t an ounce of discomposure in his own eyes. Not a glint of anything but I-could-eat-you-for-supper lurked in those black irises blazing down on me.  

“Fine,” I blurted, half out of fear, half out of anger. “But I expect a report in the morning.” 

The left corner of his lips twitched with the threat of a mocking laugh, but it had no chance of survival on that mouth. The electricity in the room lingered, bouncing off me like a thousand tiny needles. 

Then he took a heavy step in my direction. 

A hot hand grasped my chin and pulled me forward and up on my tip toes until our faces were a fraction of an inch apart. I could feel him even more now, like he’d crawled inside me. My skin wriggled and twitched from the contact.  

“I report to no one.” His breath whisped across my lips like heat from a flame. “Don’t mistake your control for dominance. It’s my job to keep you alive and your gift simply keeps me from killing you myself. That’s it. Nothing more. Never, ever forget that.”  He let go and backed away, his eyes still trained on me like a weapon.  

And then he left. Without me. Again. 

I’d come here for his help, not to be made prisoner and most certainly not to be useless in the search for my mother. I sank onto the bed, grabbed a pillow and covered my face as I let out a frustrated scream into the down.  

I promised myself one thing: I would get off that damn island one way or another.  

With or without Gabriel Roman. 

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What about you?? How do you feel about dialogue tags? Do they annoy you when reading? Have you ever read a book that used NONE? What’s your writing rule for dialogue tags?

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10 Comments

  1. I don't think tags are bad, as long as they aren't overused, redundant and the writer isn't being lazy. Often tho, beats of action or characterization can be used instead of a tag.

    The only thing that drives me nuts is if a writer does too much telling through tags as a shortcut to showing. 😉

    Angela @ The Bookshelf Muse

  2. I already told you on Twitter, I agree with you 100%–and so does my main critique partner. She nailed me several times for not mentioning names during dialogue. Finally, she told me I could go two full exchanges and then I had to use someone's name again.

    I generally use said and asked, but I like to sprinkle others in occasionally. As long as I don't use mumbled, murmured, grunted, or hissed five times a chapter, it's nice to change things up a bit.

  3. I prefer to use said vs. finding another clever way of tagging — although I do like murmur, mumble, growl, and grunt 🙂 However, I do love to use action beats most of the time instead of a tag…maybe moreso than tags.

    Tags really aren't that bad and they definitely do get a bad rap sometimes, but like you said, they break up the dialogue a bit for the readr, which is a good thing.

  4. Brava, Charissa! Great excerpt! I read something once that said many readers SKIP onto the next bit of dialog without reading the in between. GASP! I'd never…but it sure is good to know that as a writer. 😉

    PS, Have you ever read Darynda Jones? I just bet you'd love her grim reaper stories.

  5. I think you need a few. Every great book I've read used them, some used them all of the time. I think we get caught up on the rules far too much as writers sometimes. You made excellent points. Loved the excerpt.

  6. I like dialog tags (not just said – but laughed, cried, whispered and so on). For two reasons. 1. It helps me identify who is speaking and also gives more detail about their tone without slowing down the flow of the story.

    And second. Because I like poetic/dramatic prose (to a point.)

  7. Great post. I like dialogue tags, but I only use them if necessary. I don't only rely on them. The trick is finding the right balance between them, description, physical beats, etc.

  8. I agree with Krista about tone, by adding one simple dialogue tag it can deeply affect the delivery.

    Must also add that I was so caught up in your little extract that I completely forgot about tags. Sounds like an excellent idea being developed.