Dialog Tags: Four Methods

There are four methods to tagging dialog (as far as I can tell from my research):

  1. No tag
  2. Action or beat
  3. Said (direct synonyms such as replied and asked can be included here)
  4. Said alternatives

Here's an example of each (for clarification):

  1. "It's good to see you."
  2. "You too." Betty waved at her friend. "It's been a long time."
  3. "We should do lunch sometime," Joan said.
  4. "Sounds like a good idea to me," Betty agreed.

This was just written quickly for this post. I'm not saying that I would use these exact tags in a real story.

You may think from my last post that I am totally against the use of SAID. That is not entirely accurate. There is a place for said, and you can get away with using it more than any other tag. However, that doesn't mean that you should automatically run to its use.

I think that action should be used more often than anything else. You can never go wrong with action. As long as the speaker is obvious, no tag is acceptable as well. The use of SAID and SAID alternatives, however, should be utilized for a particular reason.

SAID should be reserved for times when you need to tell the reader who is speaking. It does have a certain degree of invisibility, so it can be used without irritating most readers. Overusing it, though, will irritate some, and it is my opinion that this situation be avoided as well.

SAID alternatives are a whole other ballgame. Using them can be effective, like in the example from Masquerade that I used in the previous post. However, a word of warning: overuse can be worse than overusing SAID as many professionals have shouted from the rooftops. (Sorry for the cliche.) Well chosen tags add to a piece. Choose wrong, though, and you have defeated your purpose.

Many claim that using alternative tags will make a writer lazy, unwilling to use proper showing description. This might be true, but it doesn't have to be. If action, no tag, and the occasional use of SAID are utilized correctly, well chosen alternative tags  will not get in the way.

There are some alternative tags that should not be used at all. Ejaculate is one. Don't use it, unless you are trying to specifically emulate someone like Charles Dickens. (I don't know why anyone would want to do that, though.)

Make sure the tag is actually a dialog tag. If it doesn't describe the speech, you have a puncutation problem. For example, "people don't grimace, grin, smile, and frown their sentences."* These are action tags. They are separate sentences from the dialog.

* http://fmwriters.com/Visionback/Issue%205/tags.htm

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