5 Traps to Avoid With Dialogue Tags

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Dialogue can make or break your novel. The dialogue concerns aren’t  just contained inside those ” “, it’s also the pesky little “tags” that go along with it. The Wise Ink Blog has a great article on what traps to avoid when it comes to dialogue tags. Read on:


The 5 Traps of Dialogue Tags

So simple. So small. So likely to lead you astray.

Dialogue tags are a necessary evil. It feels monotonous typing the same two words (he said/she said) throughout your story when you really want to stick to the good stuff in the dialogue itself, but if you do, you risk confusing your reader.

Well, we’re here to tell you that although dialogue tags are necessary, they’re certainly not evil. If used correctly, they can be your best friends when it comes to captivating readers and building believable, action-filled worlds.

Good dialogue builds character, describes detail, provides background information—any number of things that enhance character and plot. But most of all, dialogue should fit seamlessly within the rest of the narrative. It should flow through the narrator’s voice without dragging readers out of the world that you’ve carefully constructed and shining a big light on the fact that you’ve made it all up.

Here’s a primer on how to make the most of your dialogue tags.

So what are dialogue tags exactly? 

Dialogue tags mark who said what in your story so that readers don’t get lost in a stream of unmarked speech:

“What did you have for lunch today? The bacon-wrapped pineapple looked interesting.”

“Not really my cup of tea. I don’t think meat and fruit belong together.”

“What about Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza?”

“I’ll pass.”

That would get really confusing, really fast (especially if you have more than two people talking), and your readers would toss out your book in frustration before getting to the end of the first page. The number one job of dialogue tags is to clear up this kind of confusion:

“What did you have for lunch today?” Fred asked. “The bacon-wrapped pineapple looked interesting.”

“Not really my cup of tea,” Tanya said. “I don’t think meat and fruit belong together.”

It’s a simple idea that’s worked well in the history of novel-writing. But where do writers go wrong? Time and again, we’ve seen writers fall into one or more of these five traps:

1. The You-Don’t-Talk-Like-That Trap

Characters cannot frown, smile, laugh, weep, giggle, chuckle, sigh, or sniffle words. We know what you’re trying to write, and we know that you want to add some action along with the speech, but just make sure it’s action that can actually be voiced. Remember, you’re trying to create believable characters, so when a reader is caught up trying to picture how exactly someone smiles a word, they’re not really thinking about your fantastic dialogue.

A great way to avoid this trap is to describe the character’s action directly after they’ve spoken, and skip the tag altogether.

“You look great up there.” Bill chuckled.

Rather than,

“You look great up there,” Bill chuckled.

You still get the same idea, and it also makes sense in the universe we live in. Quite possibly, there could be an exception for those of you writing stories set in parallel universes where everyone voices their words through chuckles. But until that happens, stick with this approach!

2. The Thesaurus Trap

Writers fall into this trap when they have the good intention of spicing up their dialogue. Trying to find an alternative for “said” or “asked,” writers will scrounge their thesauruses for any suitable replacement to work within the context of their dialogue.

So words like “implored,” “whined,” “requested,” “shouted,” and, yes, even “ejaculated” begin to appear after what could have been great stand-alone dialogue.

While the first trap makes the mistake of using the wrong replacement words, this trap uses unnecessary words. While these kinds of words are technically correct, you have to ask yourself what they accomplish for your character and your dialogue.

More often than not, they only serve to remind the reader that the world you have so meticulously created is not actually real. It draws attention to the dialogue tag, the fact that a writer is creating dialogue; whereas, using “said” makes the tag more or less invisible to the reader. 

Keep your tags invisible, and unless you absolutely must use “implored,” use “asked,” and never, ever use “ejaculated.”

3. The Adverb Trap

When writers want to pair their dialogue with action, they tend to fall back on adverbial tags. Adverbs modify or qualify adjectives or verbs, turning “she was a swift runner” to “she ran swiftly.”

In dialogue, adverbs show up when writers want to explain the exact way a character said something. This especially happens if the tone or action isn’t clear in the dialogue alone. For instance:

“What did you have for lunch today?” Fred asked jovially. “The bacon-wrapped pineapple looked interesting.”

“Not really my cup of tea,” Tanya said despondently. “I don’t think meat and fruit belong together.”

While those might not be the most common adverbs we see, we hope they get the point across. Now, writers don’t always need to avoid adverbial tags—however, you must handle them with caution. They work to explain action quickly without spending too many words on description.

But just like in the Thesaurus Trap, adverbial tags remind the reader that they are reading created dialogue. Once again, sticking with “said” or “asked” keeps the dialogue tags invisible, along with your hand in creating your characters.

We’re not against extra action happening along with dialogue, especially when that dialogue might not obviously express the action behind it. For instance, a character’s words can sound sweet but hold a good deal of hostility. In this case, instead of using an adverb, consider expanding the tag into its own description.This can be a great way to plug world building into dialogue without making the dialogue itself stand out too much. It might look like this:

“What did you have for lunch today?” Fred asked, holding his gun out in front of him, eyes locking on his target. “The bacon-wrapped pineapple looked interesting.”

“Not really my cup of tea,” Tanya said, holding one of the thugs against the wall by the throat. “I don’t think meat and fruit belong together.”

Here, the reader won’t note the tag as much but the action that comes alongside it.

4. The Grammar Trap

While the other traps we’ve mentioned are pretty distracting for readers, nothing is as distracting as poor grammar. And when it comes to dialogue tags, comma placement is everything.

Remember those incorrect words that writers try to use as dialogue tags? Well, they create a lot of grammar problems. An example:

“You look great up there,” Bill chuckled.

This line of dialogue has now turned into a comma splice because “chuckled” cannot refer to Bill’s manner of speaking the dialogue. Other verbs that aren’t meant to describe the way the dialogue is spoken can create similar problems:

Colleen nodded, “I know what you mean.”

Amanda ran up to Timothy, “You’ll never believe what I just saw.”

These, too, are comma splices. If the verb cannot logically describe a form of speaking, it cannot be grammatically linked to dialogue with a comma. You can avoid this trap by always sticking with “said” and “asked” because then you’ll definitely know when you can and can’t use a comma.

5. The Repetitive Trap

Ok this one might seem to contradict all that we’ve just said about “said” and “asked.” Here we’re talking about being too repetitive with dialogue tags, or really, overusing them.

Say what? Aren’t we supposed to use the same two tags for everything? How can you avoid being repetitive when using the same two tags?

Yes, you should still mainly use “said” or “asked” for most all of your tags, but you want to pay attention to how often you’re using dialogue tags in general. If you’re creating a long string of dialogue between two characters, tags aren’t always necessary. If the reader intuitively knows who’s talking, any dialogue tag looks repetitive, like in this line of dialogue:

“What did you have for lunch today?” Fred asked. “The bacon-wrapped pineapple looked interesting.”

“Not really my cup of tea,” Tanya said. “I don’t think meat and fruit belong together.”

“What about Canadian bacon and pineapple pizza?”

“I’ll pass.”

“Prosciutto-wrapped cantaloupe?”

“Nope.”

“Suit yourself.”

Because these lines are all so short, you can forgo the tags and leave it up to the reader! Just make sure to verify that the scene makes sense without the extra tags!


Please visit The Wise Ink Blog for more writerly posts!

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