Articles / On Dialogue

Gimme More—Using Creative Narrative Instead of Dialogue Tags

If you’ve read my series on dialogue tags—or if you know me, have met me, or have ever been in my general proximity—you’d know that I’m a student of the “Less is More” school of dialogue tags. I’m not a fan of creative dialogue tags, and I’m a firm believer that unless you have a room full of clones talking haphazardly to no one, you can use creative narrative in such a way as to identify your speaker so that you’d hardly need to use dialogue tags at all.

creative narrativeBut before I go any further, let me just clarify—I am not suggesting authors use no dialogue tags at all. That would be quite the challenge unto itself, and when you’re writing your novel, well… that’s really challenging enough as it is without giving yourself the unreachable goal of REMOVE ALL THE DIALOGUE TAGS!

What I think you should aim for is a mix of dialogue tags and creative narrative. A quick little tag to keep a fast-paced scene moving along is not only good, it’s necessary, and the old adage that the word said is invisible to readers is pretty much true. However, you can’t write your novel with every line of dialogue tagged he said or she said. And if your writing contains an overuse of dialogue tags modified with adverbs or short phrases, your editor will most likely ask you to revise or expand on them in order to give more visual to the reader.

What do I mean by “an overuse of dialogue tags modified with adverbs or short phrases”? Those would be lines of dialogue that are punctuated with tags like he said or she said yet also modified by an adverb or a short descriptive phrase. Over and over again.

Here’s a few, for example:

“They’re all stupid, anyway,” Suzy said and she laughed.

Mom called happily, “Dinner’s ready.”

“That’s just too bad,” Dex said angrily, dropping into his chair with a huff.

So, what’s wrong with them? The first sentence has a dialogue tag/short phrase combination, but the phrase doesn’t show the reader much at all. The second sentence has a dialogue tag modified by an ly adverb. I’m going to use the last example since it gives an example of everything. In this sentence, we’ve got the adverb angrily, which tells us how the character feels but doesn’t show us anything. The second part of this sentence—the short phrase—isn’t a mistake so much as an opportunity. Dex is angry and drops into his chair with a huff. His words match his tone pretty well, so it all seems to work. But as an editor, I want more. I want you to show your readers.

First, ask yourself a question. Do you need to write Dex said at all in this sentence? I’d say no. The same goes for the first sentence. The rest of the action identifies the character with enough clarity to remove the dialogue tag.

But back to Dex; what about that action?

Dex dropped into his chair with a huff.

You’ll notice we’ve removed the angrily from the sentence. If you’re having a professional editor work on your book, it’s what we’ll ask you to do. Cut back on your ly adverbs. Why?  Tell, tell, tell. Don’t add back in an angry fashion, either. We’ll ask you to remove that, too. But now that it’s gone, his mood is not as clear. It’s up to you to set the scene. This is where creative narrative is used. Different verb choices could express his anger more clearly:

Dex kicked his chair with a huff.

Okay, that’s more descriptive, but I’m not sure that action matches his words or tone. So maybe a different sort of action could better describe his emotions:

Dex slammed the phone down and shoved away from his desk.

That gives a little more indication and shows more of his anger. Now’s the time to step back and consider what it is you’re trying to convey. Is anger the only thing you want to show the reader?

Dex slammed the phone down and shoved away from his desk. Cursing, he plowed his hands through his hair and stalked to the window—as if he’d find his answers hidden in the lights of the Manhattan skyline.

Now there’s a lot more information. Dex is still angry, but the reader has also learned that his anger is laced with frustration, as he’s looking for answers. Depending on what else you want to show your reader, this sentence could easily replace the dialogue tag after Dex’s words.

My favorite part about creative narrative is the other bits and pieces of information you can sneak in to your writing without doing an info dump about your character, setting, or story in chapter one. Here we’ve learned that Dex is in Manhattan, in the evening or at night, in what we can infer is his office. And he likes to swear.

Once you’ve completed your first draft, read over your manuscript and decide if you can identify for yourself where you’d like to remove neutral dialogue tags and exchange them for creative narrative. Editing in this manner is very subjective; what feels overwritten and verbose to one author can seem naked and lacking to another. I like to identify to my authors where I’d like them to expand, ask them to consider exactly what they want to convey, and then leave it up to them to fill in the blanks with as little or as much as they choose.

I’d love you hear from you; leave me a comment and let me know your favorite way of expanding creative narrative.

Happy writing!


  1. David Dalrymple Says: December 27, 2016 at 12:45 pm

    Thank you for this.. I struggle with telling vs. showing and I think that creative narrative like this can be really helpful! Well done!.

  2. Really useful. I’m frantically saving up for you lot to edit book 2 of my series!

    Love these pointers though.

    Worth their weight in gold.

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