He Said, She Said--Some Dialogue Tips

On one of the lists that I'm on, there was an extremely heated conversation about whether or not to us anything but said or asked as a dialogue tag. People were adamant that that was the only way, those in opposition were just as sure that other tags were better.

Here is what I say:

Robert Parker always used said as a dialogue tag--but his writing style was rather on the minimalist side. Don't get me wrong, I loved his books. And yes, the word "said" did become invisible. However, if you ever listened to an audio version of his books, "said" became tedious.

So do I think you should use synonyms for "said" such as he pondered, exclaimed, exchanged, remarked, etc.? Or questioned, and other such synonyms for "asked"? The answer is no.

The ideal would be that each character would have such an individual manner of speaking, that the reader could tell who was talking without any dialogue tags at all. However, that isn't always possible.

Here are some good ways to let you reader know who is speaking.

Use the character's action as a dialogue tag.

Jessica whirled around an pointed an accusing finger at Marci. "It was you, I know it was you."

"I have no idea what you're talking about." Mortimer lifted his nose as if he smelled something bad.

Use some character development as a dialogue tag for your point-of-view character.

Veronica couldn't help being suspicious to anyone who looked too innocent. She remembered how innocent her mother could look just before reaching out an yanking Veronica's hair for no apparent reason.

It wasn't too long ago that Jack had a change of heart about helping out stray dogs. The last one had bitten Jack's hand so hard, he needed stitches. "Don't get too close to that mongrel."

Let some description serve as the dialogue tag. 

Emily twisted a strand of her scraggly red hair around her finger. "I have no idea what you are talking about."

Chuck checked to make sure the fly of his jeans was zipped before he turned to greet her. "Felicity, you finally made it. Welcome."

And for the dialogue itself. 

Make sure it is pertinent to what is going on.

Dialogue should move the plot along or reveal something about the character.

Though it should sound realistic--don't copy how we actually talk. Leave out the mundane stuff like "How are you" and "I'm fine."

Don't have one character tell another something he or she would already know.

Any other suggestions?

Marilyn aka F. M. Meredith


Patricia Gligor said…
Great tips! In my first two mystery novels, I relied on "said" most of the time and I really don't have a problem with using it.
However, in my third book, which I'm currently writing, I'm taking your advice (you had mentioned it several months ago in a different post) and I'm making better use of my characters' actions as dialogue tags. A mixture of the two seems to be working for me. Thanks!
Lorna Collins - said…
AMEN! If there are only two people in the conversation and each has a distinctive voice, you don't need to add tags. But periodically, you need to indicate who is talking.
Cathy Brockman said…
I like the action tags you suggest i hate a book with dialogue and no tags at all you cant figure out who is speaking and have to study it too much taking away from the reading I also don't like he said she said all the time once in a while is fine. thanks for this. Great stuff
GBPool said…
Marilyn, I'll use action to set up how the dialogue should be read, but I'll also use "yelled," "shrieked," or even "whispered," to make the point if I don't want to slow the action that is already taking place.

But if the dialogue is long, I will drop in the name of the speaker just to make sure the reader doesn't lose track. I usually add those tags during a re-write because even I, the writer, want to make sure everybody knows who's talking.
Kathleen Kaska said…
Great suggestions. Hope you don't mind if I share it with my critique group.
By all means, anyone can share and add their own suggestions. Thank you everyone who commented.
Alan Cook said…
I don't use many tags. When I do use one it's usually "said." I try to be very careful that the reader knows who is speaking by leading in with something concerning the character, which Marilyn talked about.
Maryann Miller said…
Excellent tips, Marilyn. I agree that using action and description to indicate who is talking is so much better than using an attributive. The flow is so much better, and does make it easier to narrate the audio versions of a book.
marja said…
Great advice, Marilyn! I, too, like to use both the Said tag and action as a tag. This post served as a good reminder.
Marja McGraw

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