Saturday, September 8, 2012

Writing Notes: Dialogue Tags

A few notes on writing.
Dialogue tags (the “he said” and “she called” that accompany dialogue in quotation marks) can be some of the most annoying things to muck around with when it comes to writing, and not simply because it’s a pain to figure out the proper rhythm of when to use them and when to not. That’s a topic for another day. No, no, this covers something that seems so simple it’s laughable.
What constitutes a dialogue tag?
Most people immediately scoff and shake their heads in laughter. “It’s obvious!” they say. “If it’s a verb that describes what someone could say, then it’s a dialogue tag.” And certainly, there are some obvious ones. A person could say, yell, call, whisper, beg, confess, gloat, inquire, explain, and the rest.
But is it always so obvious? Is that why I keep flipping open books and seeing sentences like:
“You’re so sweet,” she smiled.
“But,” I frowned, “where are we going to find enough ninjas?”
Are “smile” and “frown” dialogue tags words? Can they be used, in essence, to describe a tone of voice or even a certain way that something is said?
Certainly not.
Words like smile, frown, and sneer tell us what the character’s face is doing, but not their voice. Don’t use them for dialogue tags. How could we fix those two shining examples from above?
Ah, simply enough!
“You’re so sweet.” She smiled.
I frowned. “But where are we going to find enough ninjas?”
Alternatively: “But—” I frowned. “—where are we going to find enough ninjas?”
Ta-da! No need for mucking around and trying to understand how a character could “smile” a sentence.
A general rule of thumb is this: Attempt to perform the action. If you have a character grimacing a phrase or nodding a sentence, try to do the same! If no words come out of your mouth—remember to do exactly what your character is written as doing and nothing more—then it’s not a dialogue tag.
But wait! There’s more!
What about words like hiss, chirp, or snarl? They are certainly sounds, aren’t they?
But can humans make them?
In cases like this, it depends on the context. There’s no hard and heavy rule of thumb to dictate more animalistic sounds. Sometimes they are used to give the readers certain connections with characters; for instance, a purring character causes one to think of that character as a feline, including all of the characteristics that society has dumped onto felines: That character is likely to beautiful, agile, sly, crafty, shrewd, and perhaps snobbish, to give a taste. A single dialogue tag does wonders for characterisation. Other times, the words have been given secondary definitions by culture. The verb hiss, when utilised as a dialogue tag, generally denotes a half-angry or urgent whisper, which is definitely possible. With these sorts of words, each author must decide for him or herself if it is being used properly.
So what’s the point of all of this?
Careful with your dialogue tags. Think before you write. And never, ever allow a character to “smile” dialogue.


  1. "Nicely expressed, Nicole," he blurted.

  2. I had a character 'smiling' her response, in the early days (she hastens to add) and my reader nearly blew a gasket. Phew! Never done that again! Nice post, Nicole!