I get a lot of questions from aspiring authors about dialogue tags. Some of the questions I hear are:
"Is it true you can't use anything except 'said' as a tag?"
"Is it true you can't use ANY tags?"
"What in the heck IS a dialogue tag and why should I care?"
"How can I remove tags and still have readers understand who's talking?"
Over the course of this week's blogs (because a single entry would be loooong), I'm going to explore the concept and use of dialogue tags and we'll go through some exercises to help you remove those that are redundant and add in those that will make the dialogue pop!
First, what IS a "dialogue tag?" Well, in its simplest form, it's a statement to the reader telling them who is speaking in the text. For example, "I'll go to the store," Jane said.
Okay, so why is it enough of a big deal that people bother to discuss it? This is where it starts to get tricky, because the use of dialogue tags is very subjective. You'll find plenty of writers on the shelf today, whether debut or established, who use tags. Some editors have no problem with having a tag with every entry of dialogue. Other editors see the use of them in any places other than where the speaker could be confused to be too many instances. Usually the issue of tags isn't from the use of the tag itself, but the words used. Other than "Jane said," some of the dialogue tags you might see are "Jane exclaimed," "Jane sobbed," "Jane screamed," etc. You can see how the simple statement, "I'll go to the store." changes drastically with the use of each different tag. The reader is suddenly thrust into a completely mindset of the character.
Is that a bad thing? Well, it can be a confusing thing for the reader if the rest of the text doesn't match the tag. If Jane is sitting quietly on the sofa and then suddenly sobs out the words, the reader will scratch his/her head and wonder what they missed. Some editors also consider it "cheating" to use tags in place of descriptive narrative of movement and emotions. It's also a place where new writers add adjectives as shorthand to emotions. "Jane frowned" or "Jane sighed" or "Jane mumbled." The problem with a lot of the adjectives is that you can't SIGH a line of dialogue. You also can't frown one.
Emotional shorthand comes across as inexperience and poor writing to an editor or agent. It can wind up in the 'reject' bin without the editor/agent finishing reading the pages. Why? Because if it's pervasive through the text, it takes a LOOONG time to ferret out and correct before it goes to print. In an age where contract-to-shelf is shortening, editors often don't have the time or patience to take the time to teach the writer how to write. And agents know this so often they won't take the time either.
How to identify when you're struggling with dialogue tags.