Ask the Divas

This week, the question for Ask the Divas is What’s so bad about creative dialogue tags?

To answer this question, we have to identify what a dialogue tag is and what purpose it serves. Then can we highlight creative dialogue tags and show why your efforts are better spent elsewhere.

Dialogue tags are noun/verb pairings that attach to a line of dialogue—usually with a comma, as they are part of the sentence—and indicate to the reader who is speaking:

“It’s late,” he said.

“What time is it?” she asked.

You’ll notice the lack of a comma in the second example, but still a lowercase she to indicate the continuation of the sentence. The question mark takes the place of the comma; you wouldn’t use both.

In the examples above, he said and she asked are dialogue tags used to identify who is speaking. Said and asked are the most common dialogue tags used in fiction, and they are nearly invisible to readers, who tend to skip over them and merely use them for clarity. There are other generally accepted dialogue tags, however. Intransitive verbs that describe a way of speaking—such as yelled, whispered, etc—can also be used in place of said, but they should be limited to a short list and used sparingly.

So, what is a creative dialogue tag?

“It’s late,” he yawned.

“What time is it?” she paled.

Simply put, yawning and paling are creative because they are not verbs that describe speech. But as editors, we see these creative tags more and more. Pseudo-dialogue tags like argued and agreed are two of the most common, and authors are sometimes surprised when asked to make changes. An easy way to test the word is to put your dialogue tag into this sentence: I can ____ this sentence with my words. If the sentence doesn’t make sense—I can yawn this sentence with my words—then it’s likely the tag is too creative and you should consider changing it.

But what’s so bad about that, you ask? Well, for starters, some creative tags are simply redundant. Agreed and argued are not only creative, they’re unnecessary. It should be clear from the dialogue if a character is agreeing or arguing without having to tag it. Don’t even get me started on nodding.

Secondly, the more creative the tag, the more likely that it will stop the reader in her tracks. If she’s anything like me, she will tip her head to the side—as if she’s heard a sharp, whistle-like noise—and think, “Huh? Wait, what?” The last thing you want in your book is something that stops your reader from reading. If it halts the forward progression, it should be modified or removed.

There’s another, less obvious reason not to use creative dialogue tags—one that is harder on authors to accept because they don’t realize it’s happening until it’s become a habit. Creative dialogue tags can become a crutch for the author, and then they’ll begin to take the place of creative narrative.

Sure, it’s easy to see that these tags add information to the sentences. From the first examples, there was no indication that he was tired or she was worried or frightened. Yes, creative dialogue tags will tell your reader how the characters feel. But wouldn’t it be much better if you showed them?

He rolled the kinks from his neck but kept his arm around her, unwilling to disturb her. She’d had so little rest. Smothering a yawn, he felt her stir, and the dreamy expression she’d worn turned wary. He knew speaking would end their hard-fought truce, yet he couldn’t ignore the question in her eyes. “It’s late.”

 

All color drained from her face, and she stiffened against his side before sitting up awkwardly and looking around. She raised a shaking hand to her mouth, as if to stop the words rushing from her. “What time is it?”

You’ll notice the distinct lack of dialogue tags. That’s my last important point. Dialogue tags are there to give the reader clarity—if it is perfectly clear who’s speaking, a tag isn’t necessary. A creative tag is never necessary if you weave the narrative around the dialogue.

If you focus your efforts on writing dialogue that’s clear and narrative that’s descriptive, creative dialogue tags will never be an issue.

Do you have a question for the Divas? Fill out the form below and perhaps we will answer your question next week.

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