“Dialog tags,” he exclaimed!
No 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.
“How long have you been here?” he asked.
“Long enough,” she said.
“So you heard?”
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?”
“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.