Beating Dialog Tags


Thanks to for the intro and outro music!

ASK THE AUTHOR: Is a blog necessary for an unpublished author? Jacqueline Patterson via e-mail.

AARON: Another fantastic question! The answer, of course, is no. Also, the answer is yes. It really depends on how serious you are, and how unpublished you are. It’s never too early to start a blog, but it may not be beneficial. Once your writing is strong enough, and you’re actively submitting, I say get the blog rolled out. Most publisher will want to know that you’ve already got a readership. So the sooner you can start building that, the better. Of course, if you’re not active on the blog, it won’t do much for you. Be sure to put up some good content and try to cross-pollinate with other blogs (have guest bloggers, guest blog for other writers, etc.). I think if you’re publishing short fiction and articles and the like, you should have a blog to help promote them while you wait for a publisher to pick up your work.

AL: Okay where to start. This question could be a First in Fiction Topic. In a nutshell, Aaron is right, a blog is not necessary but a blog can be useful. Some stunning numbers will outline the problem. Tumblr lists 305.9 million blogs on their service. That’s July 2016. There are 318 million people in the U.S. So Tumblr alone provides blogs for every person in the United States. Of course, they’re international but you get the idea. Worldometer shows that there were 3 million new posts on the day I’m writing this. Many sources  list 152 million blogs (you can see that the numbers never quite jib). I’ve seen stats that same a new blog is created half-second. It’s hard to know which stat to believe but we can be certain that there are many millions of blog.

My point is this: Most blogs generate only a few readers, but as Aaron mentioned, publishers want to know that you have an active social media. Facebook, Twitter, etc fits that expectation. I’ve been wrestling with the idea that social media might be better than blogging unless you have something of great interest or you’re an expert in the field of your writing (this usually applies to nonfiction).

Blogging will, however, teach you discipline and keep the creative juices flowing. Of course, the more time you spend blogging the less time you’re spending on your writing.

Firsts in Fiction


AARON: Two weeks ago, we took a look at how to make dialog sound authentic without actually being authentic. Last week, we talked about the top mistakes new writers make when writing dialog. This week we’ll look specifically at how to tag our dialog appropriately and efficiently.

  • Let’s define what we mean by a dialogue tag. A dialogue tag (also called an “attribution”–we’ll use these terms interchangeably) is a phrase that tells a reader who’s doing the talking. “I’m going to the beach today,” Tom said. “Tom said,” is an attribution, a tag. Two things to know:
    • Thing 1:These are very useful and when properly used, the reader will never get lost.
    • Thing 2: Tags are often overused (which is fine if you’re getting paid by the word).

  • Let’s define what a beat is. A beat is a moment of action (or, in some cases, introspection) that helps identify who is speaking without directly attributing the quote to an individual. EXAMPLE: Tom clenched and unclenched his fists. “I’m getting very tired of this conversation.”

  • Rules for tags:
    • Use them sparingly. They’re only needed when you have multiple people in a conversation (more than two). Even then, we should be able to figure out who is speaking by what is said.
      • The more actors in the scene, the greater the likelihood you’re gonna need more tags. As we mentioned in the last show, that if you have six people sitting around talking then tags are crucial but so are beats.
    • Said” and “asked” are all you usually need for tags. Avoid the temptation to add in adverbs and distracting verbs. (Tom exclaimed wildly, etc.) Yes, these can become redundant, but for the most part, they are invisible to the reader. They become more apparent when read aloud, though.
      • If you listen to books in audio, those tags become very apparent.
      • For a great text-to-speech software that will allow you to save your documents as .mp3s, check out Balabolka
    • Only use one tag per line of dialog. Avoid Aaron’s disease of writing lines like: Lauren said, “Why would you say something like that?” She asked, “Don’t you know how much that hurts me?” Extra tags are completely unnecessary, distracting, and ultimately confusing.

  • Rules for action beats:
    • These can be great to avoid the “he said, she said,” of dialog tags. They should be used to keep the action moving forward as the conversation continues.
    • Avoid any actions that are there only to tag the dialog. I often see things like: Tom tapped his foot. “No.” Sam tapped his foot. “Yes.” Instead, make the action relevant. It should tell us something about how the character is feeling.
      • In Who is Harrison Sawyer?, Marshall Sawyer often clears his throat when nervous or discontent. Other characters drum fingers, fold arms, etc. Find something natural for your character.
    • Intermix a little dialog with your action. Don’t be afraid to write action scenes and insert short, clipped dialog. It’s not an either or.
    • Beats often keep the setting in the mind of the reader. For example two or three people are sitting in a 1950’s style dinner. The reader will expect a waitress to come and go. Food and drink to be served, etc. These are good things. If one the character pokes at her food with a fork but never takes a bit it indicates that something wrong. The reader will read closer to figure it out.
    • Use these “beats” to indicate the passage of time and create silence without having to say “silence.”
      • Example 1: “How long are we going to argue?” Tom asked.
        The ceiling fan spun in lazy circles. The refrigerator gurgled.
        Sally sat very still, her back straight. “As long as we need to.”
      • Example 2: “You got out.”
        “And now I’m right back here.”
        “Just for tonight.”
        “Just for tonight.” He adjusted the rearview mirror. “Sure.”

        Here, the beat adds a moment of silence, which makes the “Sure” come out with an edge of irony.
    • Some beats should be the same. Others should be different. Avoid overusing the same actions. Some of the most common are:
      • Smiling
      • Frowning
      • Sighing
      • Breathing
      • Shaking or nodding of the head (most of Aaron’s characters end up being bobble-head dolls in early drafts).
    • Avoid melodramatic cliches like:
      • Jaw dropping
      • Nostrils flaring
      • Shaking fists

  • Rules for emotional beats (or interior monologue beats)
    • Don’t over do it. Less is more with emotion. One or two from time to time is fine. More than that may become distracting. I hear, though, from female readers, that they’re much more open to more emotional rumination.
      • There is a great scene in Genius that illustrates this. Max Perkins is helping Thomas Wolfe edit a 5000 page book down to a meager 1000 pages. Wolfe is having a fit; Perkins is trying to teach him that less is more and stay away from overly emotional purple prose.
    • Try to focus on the physical. Emotions are physical reactions to outside stimulus. We’ve adapted our language as a type of shorthand to describe these sensations.
      • Nervous–flighty stomach, butterflies, sweat, trembling hands
      • Fear–quickened pulse, wide eyes, cold skin
      • Anger–flushed face, increased pulse, throbbing temple
      • Sadness–hot tears, trembling lip, etc.
    • Some thinking is okay and appropriate. EXAMPLE:
      • “Don’t you like me?” she asked.
        He did, but he couldn’t tell her, wouldn’t. She deserved to suffer the way she’d made him suffer. “I don’t.”
    • Use these to provide necessary exposition to orient our reading of the dialog. Our interpretation of what’s in the quotation marks is largely dependent on the beats you use.

  • Hints for the practical writer.
    • Don’t dwell on all this while working on your first draft. (The paralysis of analysis.) The first draft is for the telling of the story. Subsequent drafts are for cleaning, restructuring, and trimming.
    • Be concise.
    • If you can take a tag out, do it. If you can’t take it out, then consider using a beat. (Remember using too many beats is as distracting as using too many tags.)
    • If your dialog confuses you, it will confuse your reader.
    • The ultimate goal is remove anything that distracts or confuses the reader. Let the story flow.