“I am,” I said. ~Dialogue Tags
by Debora Dale
Did you ever have the urge to walk up to a total stranger and tuck in the tag at their shirt collar? Did you ever have the urge to cut off all the tags on your own collars? For some reason most of us don’t do it. We feel they belong there, but tucked inside, not hanging out in the open for all to see.
So it is for shirt tags.
And dialogue tags.
Oh, dialogue tags do serve a purpose. But they simply shouldn’t be seen. At least not all the time.
“When will you go?” she asked.
“First thing in the morning,” he said.
“Is there nothing I can do to convince you to stay?” she asked.
“You can try,” he said.
Boring. Yes? The “he said, she said” tags are intrusive. What if we spice up them up? Give those tags a little more oomph…
“When will you go?” she demanded.
“First thing in the morning!” he shouted.
“Is there nothing I can do to convince you to stay?” she whined.
“You can try,” he said.
Well… they do flavor the dialogue a bit, don’t they? But can you see the characters? Do you know what they’re doing? Can you place yourself in the scene along with them? Or are you still watching them from a distance?
What if we drop every ‘said’, every ‘ask’, every other tag we’ve allowed to hang out of our dialogue?
“When will you go?” She buried her face in his neck, inhaled his warm musky scent.
He shifted, smoothed his hand over her hip, tickling her bare flesh. “First thing in the morning.”
“Is there nothing I can do to convince you to stay?”
He rolled to his back, taking her with him, then smiled up at her in that deliciously devilish way. “You can try.”
Or how about…
Her heart beat so hard, so fast, she was certain he heard it. “When will you go?”
“First thing in the morning.” He spoke so calmly. As if he were tying his shoes not readying his weapon.
She dared a step closer to him. “Is there nothing I can do to convince you to stay?”
He took aim at the paper target, shot it through the heart. “You can try.”
A tag here and there is perfectly fine, especially if it’s a simple “said”. Tags tell us who’s speaking. However, action without tags tells us that as well. From the last two examples above, can you understand who says what? Not one tag is used but the exchanges are clear, yes? With the same dialogue, we’re told different stories. We’re shown different stories.
That’s not to say action or description must be attached to every line of dialogue, however. In the third example above, the third line of dialogue stands on its own. No tag, no action, no description. Yet, we can still follow along without wondering whose line it is.
With simple tags like ‘said, ‘asked’, ‘shouted’ and others, we learn nothing except that two (or more) characters are speaking. We can’t see them in action. We don’t know what they’re thinking or feeling. They’re just standing there in a void, running lines.
Change that. Include us. Bring us into your characters’ world and keep us there. Go with the urge and tuck in those tags.