He Said, She Said: Dialogue Tags & Saidisms

So you had an idea and now want to write a book?

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CONGRATS!

When you write, nailing down your character’s dialogue is a major accomplishment. If you are writing a young adult novel, you want what the characters say to sound like that of a young adult and not like the forty-something you might be. Don’t mind me, I’ll be celebrating the anniversary of my twenty-fifth birthday FOREVER. If you want a novel that people are going to enjoy, you have to make sure the dialogue works. Not only does it have to be in the character’s voice, it has to be written properly.

The first thing you have to remember is that the dialogue is your character.

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 When a tag is added, that’s the writer.

Rule of thumb: Don’t let the tags distract the reader.

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When in doubt, stick with the simple: SAID and ASKED.

“You look hot,” he said.

“Why wouldn’t I?” she asked.

There are a handful of ways to write your dialogue. The trick is to make it come across on the page so the tag is invisible. If you have too many tags associated with action or adverbs, you pull the reader out of the story and the dialogue loses it’s purpose. Make sure as the writer, you aren’t explaining too much within your tag. If you have to explain too much, consider the dialogue. Is it appropriate? Is it really doing the job and capturing your character’s voice?

What’s the real purpose of a dialogue tag?

  • Identifies which character is speaking
  • Keeps the reader actively involved in the scene
  • Breaks up the conversation

As I write my dialogue, I remind myself not to interfere with my characters by adding too much to my tags.

Dialogue with Action

Don’t spend all your time writing action with your tags. The best thing you can do is a writer is to keep your words active and show the action. Sometimes, action associated with the tags is necessary and the easiest thing to do, but that doesn’t mean it should be on every page or every tag.

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“You look hot,” he said, taking her hand.

OR REVERSED

Taking her hand, he said, “You look hot.”

There’s nothing wrong with the examples above. Unless you do it EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. If it’s a situation where we know which characters are speaking, don’t over use the tags. Especially when you have action associated. For instance, if it’s clear which character is speaking, remove the tag and go with the action. Or rewrite the sentence so that there’s an action beat to let us know which character is talking. Action beats are great ways to show us how the characters are handling the conversation while breaking it up, because people don’t usually talk in long drawn out monologue’s.

He took her hand. “You look hot.”

In the example above, the writer could show the action better instead of being so telly, but I’ll save that for a different blog post.

Dialogue with Adverbs

Be very careful when using adverbs with your dialogue. They have their place in writing, but use them sparingly. When you attach adverbs to your dialogue, you are telling and missing the opportunity to show. This can lead to angry agents and editors, not to mention readers.

“Who are you talking to?” she asked angrily.
“It’s Jake, from State Farm,” he said defiantly.

As a reader, I’m much more inclined to care about the characters involved in the scene if you show me what the anger and the defiance looks like. It’s easier to just tell the reader the emotion, but as a writer, is that the best you can do? Probably not. Showing the emotion will help the reader connect and–crap, that’s a different post. Back to dialogue.

Formatting the Dialogue

There are rules to writing dialogue.

Proper punctuation

 Make sure you have the comma and the period in the appropriate location.

Don’t write: “You have a beautiful smile.” He said.
Write: “You have a beautiful smile,” he said.

Dialogue interrupted by speaker’s action

When you write your dialogue and your characters own actions interrupt them from speaking, use the em dash. It shows the characters are doing something and then continuing their dialogue. You don’t need the comma in the first part of the dialogue since you aren’t adding a tag. Don’t add spaces between the quotation marks and the dashes or between the dashes and the action/thought.

“If he’s guilty”—I pushed my finger into his chest—“you can bet I’m going to make sure he’s convicted.” 

Interrupted dialogue by another speaker

When another character interrupts the first, you show this in your dialogue using the em dash. There is no need to say it He cut her off or She interrupted him. The dialogue shows it for you.

“I loved you—”
“You think you did.”

Dialogue that trails off

If your character loses their train of thought or doesn’t know what to say, use the ellipsis. Make sure you don’t abuse these.

“I wanted cheesecake, but . . .” This diet is for the birds. 

Names in your dialogue

Make sure you use a comma before and/or after the name if your speaker is addressing someone directly in dialogue. This includes pet names, non-proper names. 

“Are you okay, Emily?”

“Come here, honey.”

“Logan, she did that for you.”

Don’t be redundant.

“RUN!” she exclaimed.

You have an exclamation here. This tells us the character is shouting the word run. But as the author, you added a tag. It’s almost a case of showing and then telling because you show us with the dialogue and then you turn around and tell us with the tag. Don’t do it. Trust your reader. If you want to use the dialogue tag rewrite the sentence.

“He mean to tell me he—”
“Yep,” she interrupted.

The interruption is obvious from the use of the em dash. You risk pulling the reader out of the story. They might think there is a glitch in the matrix because you told them the same information twice.

Saidisms

These are words designated to replace the word said with the purpose of providing additional information not given to you in the dialogue. They become an eyesore and distract the reader when used frequently. Trust that, for an editor, using said or asked over and over never gets boring. Murmured and whispered are tags that are accepted because of the argument that you can whisper and murmur words. However, you don’t need to tell the reader the character whispers every time. You can show it other ways. Keep in mind, the tag is supposed to tell you who is speaking.

An editor once told me: You can’t snarl or smile words, you say them.

So as a writer, why would you say:
“I love you, ” he smiled.
“No you don’t,” he snarled.

Exceptions

In writing, there will always be exceptions. Some genres are more accepting of a variety of tags beyond said and asked and want their writers to use them. Romance is an example. If you are a romance writer–and I don’t mean young adult fantasy writer that has romance intertwined–then being restrictive with your tags isn’t necessary. From what I’ve seen published and read on various editor blogs, varying your tags in romance is encouraged. Even outside the romance genre, varying your tags from time to time is acceptable. When in doubt, talk it over with your CPs. Check out twitter and writing forums. Editors have blogs and tumblrs, just waiting to be read.

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Comments

  1. Great post, very helpful info. Thanks

  2. Great article. As far as trailing off with “…” I read once that editors only want to see three sets of that a book. Do you think that’s true? Or a subjective thing

    • I haven’t heard that specifically, but I’m not surprised. I’m not a fan of using them. Someone told me editors don’t care for a ton of ! in your MS either.

  3. Great post, Nat!

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