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The Pedant: how to make your editor happy 1: Dialogue tags

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Dialogue tags

She said, he said: the use (and misuse) of dialogue tags

Dialogue is the engine of good fiction. It makes characters three-dimensional and realistic; it drives the story forwards; it allows the writer to provide background information without resorting to reportage. Good dialogue, one might say, speaks for itself.

Well, yes, but that's not the whole story. Take a look at this passage:

‘I like the husband for it.'
‘You always like the husband for it.'
‘The evidence doesn't stack up. His alibi is solid.'
‘Why would he break into his own house to kill her? Doesn't make sense to me.'
‘My gut says it's him, evidence or not.'

This is dialogue, but it's unanchored. If this were the opening of a story, it would be pretty confusing, and difficult to navigate. How many speakers are there? Who is speaking when? A reader confronted by a passage like this is left none the wiser. This is where dialogue tags show their utility. Let's make a few adjustments to our dialogue:

‘I like the husband for it,' said Randall.
Geoff smirked. ‘You always like the husband for it.'
‘The evidence doesn't stack up. His alibi is solid,' said Ruth.
‘Why would he break into his own house to kill her?' said Geoff. ‘Doesn't make sense to me.'
‘My gut says it's him, evidence or not,' Randall insisted.

If this were the opening to a story, we would be on much firmer ground. Now we know there are three speakers, and we know who is saying what. In fact, we've learned quite a lot here. The three characters are police officers, probably detectives. Randall likes to use his intuition and is confident in his opinions, but perhaps feels his colleagues don't approve of his approach; Ruth prefers solid evidence; Geoff has a sense of humour - or he is a tad flippant - and is playing devil's advocate to Randall.

We can confidently infer, in the words of the late, great Inspector Taggart, that ‘there's been a murder'. Our three characters are investigating the incident, and they have different opinions on the case. With the addition of a mere ten words, we have given the passage a proper context, and provided some background information on the characters.

Actually, we've done more than that; we've saved ourselves a narrative job. Because the characters reveal traits as they act and speak, we don't need to fill in the blanks with reportage; we have shown the reader something about the characters, in an economical way, so we don't need to waste valuable space in the narrative telling the reader these details.

And most importantly of all, we have achieved all this in a way that keeps the dialogue centre stage; the dialogue tags are effectively invisible. Six of our ten added words are just ‘she said/he said' tags. The other two tags are a minor action (Geoff smirked) and a little variation on ‘s/he said' to indicate strength of feeling.

So dialogue tags are extremely useful: they orient the reader and indicate who is speaking; they let the reader know how many characters are involved in the dialogue; and they give the writer an opportunity to underscore the traits revealed by the characters' speech. That's a lot of value for a small verbal investment.

For many new writers, however, dialogue tags present an opportunity, and a problem: an opportunity to show off their creative skills; and a problem of economy and plot logic. Let's reset our dialogue, using real-world examples from books I have edited over the years:

‘I like the husband for it,' uttered Randall, rubbing his hands together.
Geoff smirked. ‘You always like the husband for it,' he responded in a sarcastic tone.
‘The evidence doesn't stack up. His alibi is solid,' stated Ruth, arching an eyebrow.
‘Why would he break into his own house to kill her?' Geoff paused for a moment and went on. ‘Doesn't make sense to me.'
‘My gut says it's him, evidence or not,' Randall blurted.

Remember what we said about dialogue tags being largely invisible? Well, here, it's very much the opposite; the tags have become more visible than the speech. Instead of enhancing the dialogue, the elaborate tags have undermined it.

Let's go through the passage in detail. Why is Randall rubbing his hands? Is it a cold day, or is the character nervous or anxious? We don't know, and the tag doesn't help. And what does ‘uttered' add that ‘said' doesn't?

In the second line, the tag is completely superfluous. Geoff's smirk has already given us all the information we need. The tag is ponderous (and a touch pompous) and takes the reader's eye away from the speech. The word ‘responded' is not technically incorrect here; but it's not very accurate either. The writer has sacrificed sense and logic for unnecessary variation.

In the third line, the two elements of the tag are disconnected. Generally, ‘stated' is used to indicate a formal declaration; here, it's clumsy and out of place. And the descriptive action is a cliché; it tells us nothing about Ruth, except that she has mobile eyebrows. It doesn't support what she says, and it adds nothing to the story.

In line four, Geoff demonstrates one of my real bugbears. If I had a pound for every time a new writer presented me with this construction, I wouldn't need to edit for a living. This tag says nothing at all; Geoff takes a breath between the first and second parts of his speech, and otherwise it's irrelevant.

Finally, Randall doesn't speak; he blurts. Well, no he doesn't; ‘blurt' implies involuntary speech, and it's simply wrong here.

Why do new writers do this? I think it's a case of trying too hard when it doesn't matter, or reinventing the wheel. Decorating dialogue tags for the sake of it is tantamount to getting the tinsel out in June. It clutters the story with unnecessary detail, adds to the word count without adding to the story, and detracts from the very thing it's designed to support. If you want to sound professional and literate, you should avoid this behaviour at all costs.

So what have we learned about dialogue tags?

  • First, use them as they are intended, to orient the reader and identify speakers.
  • Second, keep it simple; if ‘she said/he said' works for professional authors, it will work for you.
  • Third, if you extend a tag, make sure it's relevant and it adds to the story.
  • Fourth, don't upstage the dialogue with the tag; let the speech do the work.
  • Remember the maxim: good dialogue speaks for itself. Anything else is noise.

 

When he isn't editing, Noel Rooney writes a regular column for Fortean Times magazine, and wilfully obscure poetry. He lives in South London with his family and rather too many animals.