“Dialog tags,” he exclaimed!

dialog-speach-bubbles-clouds-1023x1No reason to be ashamed here. We’ve all written them. While some of us are greater offenders than others, at some point, we’ve all over-written dialog tags. “Good morning!” he exclaimed wildly. “Good to see you,” he shouted excitedly.

I think I speak for most of us when I say, “Ugh.” Those types of attributions are great in third grade, but when they pop up in our prose, it makes our writing feel rather, well, third-gradish (my apologies to any third graders I’ve inadvertently offended).

Here’s the thing: when you’re tagging your dialog, all you really need is “said” or “asked.” Everything else can be gleaned contextually. For example, if we read, “Look out!” we understand that it is likely being shouted or exclaimed. What about “replied” or “answered.” Meh. We can do without those, too.

Those types of attributions call too much attention to themselves and remind the reader that they are reading. Psychologically speaking, we tend to read over the “he said,” “she said,” without paying any attention. It gets us the information without taking us out of the story. That’s what we want. We want the reader to forget they’re reading and simply experience the story.

But won’t that get redundant? Maybe, but, as I said, we tend to read over them without acknowledging them, so it won’t feel repetitive, ideally. If you feel like you’re overusing it, then trim some back. How much do you need, really? If there’s only two people speaking, we can figure out who says what simply by following paragraphs. If more than two people are speaking, hopefully the characters have a unique enough way of speaking so that the reader can tell who says what without having to tag each line of dialog. I’ll give you some examples.

In the first example, I’ll show you the difference between overwritten tags and subtle attributions.

“How long have you been here,” he questioned inquisitively.
“Long enough,” she replied ominously.
“So you heard?” he asked her nervously.
“Every detail,” she exclaimed.

Compared to:

“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Long enough,” she said.
“So you heard?”
“Every detail.”

You can even add in some action to attribute who says what.

Franks stood quickly and stared at Sarah. “How long have you been here?”
“Long enough.”
“So you heard?”
Sarah grinned. “Every detail.”

If you’ve got several characters talking, try something like this:

“Listen, Bro. We gotta get out of here fast.”
“I know,” Lauren said.
Oliver pointed. “There’s an exit about twenty yards that way.”
Ullwen said nothing. He hung an arrow on his bowstring and moved forward with a quiet deliberation.

The simple addition of the word “Bro” in the first sentence tells you that Aiden is talking. You know that, because he says it a lot. It becomes an effective way to tag the dialog. The rest is primarily action (except for “Lauren said,”).

Hope this helps. Now, go edit.

15 Comments on “Dialog tags,” he exclaimed!

  1. ashley lopez rivera 6th per. | February 27, 2012 at 6:41 pm | Reply

    i think the reason people write ‘he exclaimed’ or ‘he/she shouted’ is because they want to give the story more effect…. like they want to sound smarter by using big words to describe what the character is doing so that the reader might be impressed…you know what i mean? but actually like what you said here, its really just unimportant.

  2. Brittany Walters | February 28, 2012 at 4:38 pm | Reply

    I believe that you can use things like “he exclaimed.” However, I don’t think it’s too good to use it all the time. It might be better to use “he said” at some points. I think it’s better to mix things up and also add some action in it. I sometimes say things like, “he said while sliding his shoes on.” I think that it’s a good way to pull action into your writing. If there’s a lot of talking in a certain area it might be better to just say “he said.”

  3. Ha, I’m actually guilty of using overly excited and overly dramatic responses, like exclaimed or replied(which I actually use a lot.) I never realized how redundant and unnecessary they actually are to the story line.

  4. haha wow.. reading this really opened my eyes because I tend to do this a lot in my righting I mean its like… spaced out in the way I do it but i mean its defiantly there. :/ so thanks to this I know how to.. control it so thats good:P I always thought that it was necessary.

  5. Brandy Placeres | February 29, 2012 at 12:19 pm | Reply

    Yeah, I see how redundent it is but I’m sure that no one writes “he replied” just like you did in your first example. I do use it a lot and after reading this I will be cutting back on it. I thought people put “exclaimed” or “she replied” to give more emotion to the character but I see that with the dialouge and the situation your characters are in the readers should see it clearly.

  6. I would have to I’m just as guilty as the rest. I love to use exclamation points. In a story it’s the wrong approach. I need to watch that one. Just using “said and “asked” is boring and over used. I think there needs to a switch up. Dialogue is very hard to do.

  7. dialogue needs to feel realistic and natural. it can’t be to forced because then it becomes boring and lame. dialogue is extremly hard to use and to actually create since, other authors have done it so bad in the past. I think the best way to go about this is to take into consideration how it sounds once you read it out loud to get a good understanding of the meaning of the conversation .

  8. alexandria heins | March 1, 2012 at 9:06 pm | Reply

    I hate writing dialog. I think it is the worst part of writing, at least my writing. I don’t think I’ve put one line of dialog in my Do Now Journal. First you have to know your what your character would say, their voice not yours. And then you have to make them talk and make it seem believable.Ht hardest part is when multiple people are talking and then their name has to be stated near everything they say; it gets pretty boring. Crummy dialog will ruin anything. I enjoy reading good dialog. Its a great way to throw in comic relief.

  9. Alyssa Varney | March 1, 2012 at 11:24 pm | Reply

    I think people say things like that is because they want to let their readers know who is talking, but sometimes they use the term too much. They probably use “he said sadly” to show the emotion of the character that is talking. If the story has bad dialog it will most likely ruin the whole story and you wouldn’t want to read the rest of the story or book. I like to read stories that have a little bit of dialog and not too much like some stories.

  10. Leslie washington | March 5, 2012 at 10:55 pm | Reply

    When I first started writing. I would have to improvise a lot and look for words similar to “she said” or he said. I even had to look up words online. Kinda weird huh?

  11. Karolina Bibian | March 14, 2012 at 9:25 pm | Reply

    Yeah!! I think that dialogs have to be the hardest thing to do since we just don’t have the right education in this section I would thing. I think you just have to make it just flow it’s cant be to agh to boring and lame to read! The writer also has to be consern of not making the mistake of tagging everything said in the story…I’m pretty sure I know who is talking next you know!

  12. Wow, I’m behind on these posts! I feel like such a slacker!
    I’ve never liked all the dialogue tags in reading. It makes the story feel artificial and it breaks the illusion. When you do that as a writer, you’re basically screaming in your reader’s face, “Hey! I wrote this! Aren’t I smart?!” You want your readers to forget that they’re reading the product of someone else’s imagination. To make sure that happens, make your dialog as lean but meaningful as possible.

  13. I have a horrible horrible time with this stuff all the time because im so stuck into how i text i dont even bother to do any of tags or anything and when i write its even worse i start to talk like im texting and everything this deffinantly learned a lot out of this blog

  14. Darryl_Sanderson | April 29, 2012 at 4:24 pm | Reply

    Adding tags to dialogue just seems to make the writing sound… not very smooth. I try to keep tags at a minimum but sometimes I feel like nobody will understand who is talking.

  15. Cameron Rohskothen | May 16, 2012 at 11:17 am | Reply

    This is another popular mistake of mine. I love to put a ton of tags/ words after my quotes. For example:
    “Shut up” he burped angrily.
    This implants a distinct image in the reader’s mind, but is not logical and really does ruin my writing in some way. Recently, I have been learning to leave the quotes alone and just let them speak normally in an attempt to make my writing more fluent.

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