“Dialogue tags,” he said.

Writing is a funny business. Once you start looking into the nuts and bolts of it, you start worrying about some very odd things.

One of those things is dialogue tags. How should you use them? There are several approaches, and you realise they’re all awful when you study them for long enough.

The Boring Way

“This is a sentence,” said Mr Banana.

The simplest and most ordinary approach. Every line of dialogue is marked with a tag that says who is speaking. It’s clear, it’s easy, and it gets really boring when a lot of dialogue comes along at once.

Obviously, repeating their names all the time can look a bit… robotic. Once it’s clear who is talking to whom, you can switch to pronouns (he said, she said) or even descriptions (the old man said, the blonde girl said).

Said, said, said. If it’s a question, you can switch in “asked”. But it gets really repetitive. Is there a better way?

The Exciting Way

“This is a sentence!” he exclaimed.

Now here you can have some fun. Ditch boring old “said” and you can have so many other options. He can speak, utter, shout, roar, whisper, scoff, laugh, cry, scream, moan… if you’re writing for Dr Watson, he might even ejaculate (get your minds out of the gutter!). “Asked”, too, can be switched for other options – she can query, question, wonder, ponder, quiz…

Every line can have a different tag, and we don’t even have to resort to any of those filthy adverbs (who would say “he shouted loudly”, for instance? He yelled!).

And the result is… a bit of a mess, really. All those dialogue tags can be headache-inducing to read, like using far too many different colours.

Boring or excessive. What if we didn’t bother with them at all?

The Minimalist Way

“This is still a sentence.”

If you want to be really Zen about it, you don’t need a tag at all. Someone has spoken. Hopefully, your readers will know who it is. But heaven help them if we’re relating a conversation between several people. Even between just two, it can be easy to lose track over a long section of dialogue.

The Indirect Way

He raised an eyebrow. “This, too, is a sentence.”

This is a good trick. As every speaker should start in a new paragraph, we can avoid dialogue tags entirely by referencing an action instead. Our speaker is doing something, and then speaks! Problem solved!

Except then the action gets somewhat… choppy. It’s like an amateur dramatics performance where the cast don’t know their lines. They do something, then stop to speak. Then someone else acts, stops, and they speak. It doesn’t feel natural.

All Of The Above?

The approach that works best for me is… all of them. At once. Dialogue tags are essential at times to make the conversation clear to the reader, but you don’t need to stick to any one type. I like to switch between them, almost at random, because then the writing doesn’t get stuck in any one form for too long.

And it still feels fake to me.

Oh well. I can only hope that nobody notices when they read it. Or maybe that they start noticing it in every other book they ever read.

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