What the heck are dialogue tags?

I thought, reading through my first few drafts of my novel, The Beggar’s Opera, that I should replace ‘said’ with the more descriptive words that actually described the dialogue taking place. My characters began to rasp, hiss, snarl, giggle, and shout.

I soon learned that these are dialogue tags, and I’m afraid to say, they’re a sign of an amateur writer.

Dialogue is tricky at the best of times, particularly for someone who has been taught from elementary school on to use a thesaurus, and to use a variety of words. But when it comes to writing dialogue, you should probably throw that thesaurus away. Or at least leave it on the shelf.

Probably the best example of what is, and isn’t, a dialogue tag was posted on Absolute Write (thank you, FennelGiraffe).

1) “Don’t be silly,” she said.

2) “Don’t be silly,” she giggled.

3) “Don’t be silly.” She giggled.

Examples 1 and 2, as FennelGiraffe points out, are dialogue tags. The only difference between them is the verb. In examples, 2 and 3, it’s punctuation.

Yet, examples 1 and 3 are fine while example 2 is a dialogue tag that should be removed or rewritten. Why?

Well, some people argue it’s because you can’t giggle and talk (or snarl, growl, laugh, etc.) at one and the same moment. Others say it’s simply because the use of the dialogue tag is jarring. A reader doesn’t even notice ‘said’ — it’s almost invisible — while the other verbs pull the reader out of the story and remind them they’re reading. A third argument is that if your dialogue is strong, you don’t need tags: the strength of the dialogue conveys everything the reader needs to know.

But I don’t think you need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. My personal preference isn’t listed by FennelGiraffe. It would be:

4) “Don’t be silly,” she said, giggling.

See the difference?

Now, there are some circumstances where you may want to use a dialogue tag. I think the trick is using to learn them sparingly. Judiciously. If your entire manuscript is peppered with  dialogue tags, you’re letting an agent know that you’re still learning how to write, and that means you’re likely to get a polite rejection letter.

But I think there’s no easy way to convey shouting, for example, without using a dialogue tag, or an exclamation mark. (Although the only thing more shunned in good writing that a dialogue tag is an exclamation mark.)

“Stop using exclamation marks,” she shouted. “For God’s sake, stop!”

Of those two examples, probably either one is acceptable. You can’t have someone ‘say’ shouting. Although I must confess, I  cringe when I see more than a few exclamation marks in a book. It makes me wonder where the editor was.

And if I see more than a handful of dialogue tags, I’m pretty sure there wasn’t one.

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