Dialogue Tags and the Reader

Filed under: Interaction

Often seen in: General collaborative

There’s nothing wrong with dialogue tags. Often they add a little more action and identify who is speaking in a packed scene. In role-play, this is the case with several authors, and here dialogue tags work well.

But there does come a point where dialogue tags are used in a redundant manner:

“I command you to march into war,” he commanded.  This is an exaggeration of anything I’ve read or written, but even substituting one of the command-verbs into a synonym would probably be irrelevant. The whole sentence is the dialogue tag, in a way, telling our schema how we’d expect a person to act. The general will command the soldier into war; we don’t need anything telling us so.

“The road is very wide,” he said. Here, a writer could just go without the tag. Out of context, the two words do nothing to enhance the scene or the dialogue. If you can’t think of a useful synonym, just drop the tag.

“How could you do such a stupid, stupid thing?” she spat, angry. It’s a bit more descriptive, but, still, I think, the tag isn’t needed. The reader can tell that she is angry from the dialogue alone, and is probably expecting that the words are spat anyway.

Yes, it’s up to the writer’s discretion when they use what sorts of tags, but it’s good to know when they are going too far. Because collaboratives involve not only one author – and combinations of styles – it is easy to forget about the simple things like what surrounds the dialogue of the many characters. These tags, however, are just as important. Too many can spoil a chapter. Too few can confuse the reader.

In my opinion, dialogue tags are most effective when they provide an element of surprise that the statement, such as:

“I command you to march into war,” he lulled.

I don’t know about you, but this makes me want to find out more why he is speaking softly the command. Thus, a little bit of a different tag can, well, make all the difference!

Good writing doesn’t need a dialogue tag for each piece of speech, but sometimes they can be useful to indicate something that may not be obvious to the reader.

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