Dialogue Tags

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If you get good at writing dialogue, you’ll build depth in your characters and move your story forward. Write bad dialogue and your reader will close the book. I’ve often put down what might have been a great story except for how poorly the dialogue was written.

One of my pet peeves in writing is for writers to tag dialogue with actions that are impossible to do while speaking. Let me give a few examples:

  • “I don’t think so,” Martha huffed.
  • “Don’t put that there,” Henry snorted

You do know what a snort or huff sound like, right? I’d be straining my ears to hear what Martha said. And can you picture Henry actually snorting his words? An easy fix for this would be:

  • Martha huffed. “I don’t think so.”
  • Henry snorted. “Don’t put that there.”

This is the same for words like: growled, giggled, howled, laughed. These are action words and not ways to actually say something. Let the character do the action followed by dialogue.

Another pet peeve is when writers use -ly words with dialogue tags, such as:

  • “Come here,” she said sweetly.

While this is acceptable, I’d rather be shown what “sweetly” looks like. A better to write this might be:

  • She tilted her head to one side and made her voice sound like honey. “Come here.”

While it’s longer than “said sweetly” we not only get a better sense of how the dialogue was said, we also get more into the character’s head and discover what she is like.

Another way of writing dialogue that gets used a lot is with the “as” word:

  • “Hand me the salt,” Harriet said as she stirred the bowl of cookie batter.

Not bad, but the dialogue could be tightened and the “said” eliminated altogether:

  •  Harriet continued to stir the bowl of cookie batter. “Hand me the salt.” 

One last dialogue fix. Often times writers will using “said” with an -ing word. For example:

  • “Go sit in the corner right now,” Meg said pointing to the chair under the window.

This is another easy fix. Take out the word “said” and turn the -ing word into a strong verb. It also helps to move the action to the front of the dialogue, but can be written both ways.

  • “Go sit in the corner right now.” Meg pointed to the chair under the window.

or

  • Meg pointed to the chair under the window. “Go sit in the corner right now.”

With this type of dialogue, it’s a matter of preference as to the action or spoken word first. Sometimes when the action and the dialogue happen at the same time, it works either way.

I hope these examples help. What have you tried in writing dialogue that works well for you?