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Tag, You’re It!: Why Simple Dialogue Tags Are Your Friend

As writers, we’re always looking for ways to spice up our writing. Slang words! Creative formatting! Italics and bolds. CAPS! We never want our writing to be dull, so we look for little tricks and shortcuts that can make our words jump right off the page.

One way that many writers try to make their prose more dynamic is through the use of creative dialogue tags. What are dialogue tags? They’re the words you use before or after dialogue, most commonly “he said” and “she said,” often followed by adverbs to tell the reader how the dialogue was spoken. Beyond “he said” and “she said,” though, there’s a world of more creative dialogue tags to choose from. From whispered to muttered to mumbled to yelled to grumbled to sighed, if you’re looking for a creative dialogue tag, you’ll never run out of possibilities.

However, I’m here to tell you that “he said” and “she said” are your best friends when it comes to writing dialogue.

Why should you avoid creative dialogue tags?

1. They distract from the dialogue

Dialogue tags provide the reader with guidance as to who is speaking so that the conversation can be easily followed. However, once you start to include creative dialogue tags, your dialogue tags are no longer making the dialogue flow better. Instead, these dialogue tags pull attention away from the dialogue itself.

Think of your dialogue tags as a singer performing backup vocals for a pop star. If the singer was costumed in a bright yellow chicken costume, she would distract the audience from the pop star herself. That’s what dialogue tags like “he sighed” and “she equivocated” do to your dialogue.  Let your dialogue shine in the spotlight without any distractions.   

2. They tell rather than show

We all know the #1 rule of writing—Show, Don’t Tell. When you include creative dialogue tags or bog down your dialogue tags with lots of adverbs, you’re breaking rule #1.

Take, for example, the line of dialogue “I can’t believe you would show up here after last night.” This dialogue clearly shows a character who is angry or upset. However, once you tack on a dialogue tag like “he said angrily,” you’ve taken all the oomph out your dialogue by telling us how this character feels. The same goes for dialogue tags like “he grumbled.” Instead of telling us the character is grumpy, showing us this this emotion through the dialogue itself will pack a more powerful punch.  

In Jennifer Honeybourn’s Wesley James Ruined My Life, our main character Quinn says to her nemesis Wesley, “That’s my tip, you ass! I earned it,” and Jennifer trusts the reader to understand through the dialogue that Quinn is mad rather than telling us by tacking on an adverb or a creative dialogue tag.  

3. They’re often impossible to do

Not all books are realistic. Some are set on faraway planets or in underground caves or in different dimensions that live only in our head. But even if you’re writing about an unrealistic world, it’s always smart for your dialogue and dialogue tags to feel plausible so that your reader doesn’t ever feel drawn out of the story.  

Consider dialogue like, “’I wish I didn’t have to be at this SAT training session,' he sighed.” Now try sighing this line of dialogue. It’s really, really hard to do, if not impossible, to sigh more than a word or two. When you include dialogue tags that don’t match how people talk in real life, your reader is apt to pause and spend time thinking about how this would work—and the last thing you want your reader to do is pause.

Are you drawn to creative dialogue tags, or are you “he said”/“she said” fans? Tell us in the comments below!

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Kat Brzozowski

Native New Hampshirite. Broadway musical nerd. Work team softball slugger. Embroidery aficionado. I’m one part Ramona, one part the monkeys …

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