In today’s article we are going to discuss our ninth writing pitfall for first time authors, the overuse of dialogue tags. But what’s the big deal? Well, the problem with unnecessary dialogue tags is they eat up your word count and provide very little in return.
Not every piece of dialogue needs a tag. Overuse of tags inhibits your ability to dig deeply into a scene and into the motivations and personalities of the characters who are conversing. When this happens, the dialogue stumbles along rushed and riddled with meaningless and telling descriptions.
Dialogue tags are somewhat like the weeds of the literary world. And like weeds, not all dialogue tags are bad, detrimental, or even unnecessary. But similar to their plant-based cousins, these tags do tend to multiply rapidly and clutter up something you’ve worked hard to make beautiful.
Use them with caution. In the same way you wouldn’t line a bed of prize-winning roses with dandelions, you shouldn’t clutter up your witty conversations with filler in the form of dialogue tags. Such tags are distracting and they weaken the overall presentation of your scene.
Below we’ve taken a small conversation and revised it in various ways to illustrate the faults of dialogue tags.
“Hey, you, what’s up?” Sally asked. “It’s been years…” she said.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” Sam said.
“So…want to go out for a cup of coffee?” Sally asked. “There’s a café around the corner,” she said.
“Sure. Let me grab my coat,” Sam said.
Notice that the dialogue tags add very little to the scene other than indicating who is speaking. This is the issue with dialogue tags. They only tell one thing.
If there’s a primary rule of writing, it is to do as much as you can in as small a space as possible. Books are not like big houses that can be filled with copious amounts of useless or little used items. Books have an extremely limited amount of square footage in which you have to do a lot of things. Because of this, your words must do double or even triple duty. This means there’s little space for dialogue tags that do one thing.
To fix this, authors have taken to adding adverbs and subordinate clauses to creative tags so they give more information.
So, let’s take a look at an example of this.
“Hey, you, what’s up?” Sally inquired nervously, remembering how long it’s been since she last saw him. “It’s been years…” she said, letting her words trail off.
“Oh, you know, same old, same old,” Sam mumbled as he stared at his feet with a shy expression on his face.
“So…want to go out for a cup of coffee?” Sally queried, but she seemed almost shocked by her words, as if she didn’t meant to say them. “There’s a café around the corner,” she added, feeling awkward.
“Sure. Let me grab my coat,” Sam replied with a happy grin.
Even with creative dialogue tags combined with adverbs and subordinate clauses, the scene is not improved. In fact, I’d say it’s worse. It’s anemic, the pacing is a mess, and the readers are given very little in the way of meaningful information.
Perhaps the key to fixing this scene does not lie with dialogue tag usage. Remember the primary issue with dialogue tags? That’s right: they tell only one thing. But this is a two-fold problem: singular focus and telling. In the above example we have fixed the singular focus of the dialogue tags, but they are still extremely telling.
You’ve heard it said: show don’t tell. But if you have an issue with telling, how do you fix it? Well, the first place a writer should go to improve their ratio of showing versus telling is the dialogue. Take a look at those tags and replace them with narrative.
Showing is a way in which you leave things to implication. In other words, don’t say a character is attracted to another character because he is staring at her with a smoldering gaze. Instead, describe that smoldering gaze and let your readers infer the attraction.
To fix the above scene, it’s time to embrace an alternative.
The primary way that writers overcome the limitations of dialogue tags is by reducing their tag usage and replacing it with what we refer to as “creative narrative.”
Creative narrative is simply narrative that is used to show multiple things about your character, their emotional state, the scene setting, etc. This type of narrative gives you a large amount of bang for your writing buck.
Here’s an example of this:
Sally smiled widely when she saw her old friend Sam. She leaped into his arms with a sharp cry and hugged him hard. He enveloped her small form in a firm embrace, picked her up, and twirled her around as she breathed in the spicy scent of his cologne.
She playfully punched his arm when he set her down. He knew she hated being picked up. “Hey, you, what’s up? It’s been years…” Suddenly, she wanted to hit his bulging bicep again—for so many reasons. For leaving her behind; for not calling; for breaking her heart.
Sam shrugged, his brow furrowing as he stared at his large, boot-clad feet. “Oh, you know, same old, same old.”
Sally bit her lip, her mind racing. Now that he was back, she was overwhelmed with the need to keep him with her, if only for a little while. But she couldn’t do that. She couldn’t be a fool for him again. Not now.
“So…want to go out for a cup of coffee?” Sally gasped and slapped her hands over her mouth. Oh God, she shouldn’t have said that.
Sam jerked, his dark eyes meeting hers. They were full of shock and heat and a spark of something she couldn’t understand. Sally felt her heart rate increase, but she didn’t know why. It matched the pounding tic at the base of Sam’s throat.
Slowly Sally dropped her hands and tried to smile. “There’s a café around the corner.”
Sam brushed his thumb across her lip, freeing it from the press of her teeth, and released a rumbling sigh. Sally closed her eyes for a fraction of a second and leaned into him. She was sure his hand trembled when he touched her, but that couldn’t be right.
Seconds ticked by as Sally waited for his reply. Finally, Sam grinned and attractive creases formed around his mouth almost hiding a full set of dimples. “Sure. Let me grab my coat.”
While dialogue tags have a place and a purpose and you should use them, there are times that creative narrative is a much better choice. The above example is one of those times.
Trust your gut and let it guide you when it comes to using dialogue tags. They are necessary—in moderation. But in the extreme, they will wreck your pacing, cause repetitiveness, and lead to colorless scenes full of filler.