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A Dozen Solutions to the “Dialogue Tag”

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Novels are full of conversations. As in “real life,” fictional characters speak with various intonations, emphases, and purposes. Their words might be accompanied by gestures, facial expressions, emotional reactions, or interior reflections—helping the reader “know” what the words mean.

As writers, we can convey those crucial details—the keys to meaning—in numerous ways. But it’s tricky. We want to be clear without being predictable, evocative without being obscure—to help the reader follow who is speaking and how.

In other eras, that was accomplished by verbs and adverbs.  People didn’t just speak; they screamed, snarled, muttered, and moaned. Nowadays, though, the neutral said is preferred. We’re also advised to avoid pairing said with adverbs like sincerely, bitterly, heavily, etc.—a style that’s gone out of fashion. (For fun, see the examples in this piece about “Tom Swifties” that parody the overuse of adverbs in dialogue.)

If we follow this advice and confine ourselves (mostly) to the generic and unadorned said, we’re left with the challenge of how to convey the emotional quality of a line of dialogue.  What other ways are left to us, without those high-drama verbs and nineteenth-century adverbs?

Enter the dialogue tag—an extra phrase that precedes or follows an utterance. With a sigh. Lifting an eyebrow. Her voice growing shrill. There’s nothing wrong with adding a bit of clarification and enhancement! However, like all techniques, these dialogue tags need to be used strategically. Having struggled with this, I asked myself two questions that I’d like to explore here:

  1. When, how, and why can we use dialogue tags effectively?
  2. Are there other ways, instead of embellishing a vocalized statement, to accomplish the same goal?

Let’s take a fictitious story-moment and look at a dozen different ways to show what it means to the protagonist.

Here’s the scenario:  Ellen, our POV character, has just been let-down by her friend Jessie. At the last minute, Jessie has reneged on a promise to meet Ellen for lunch during her layover in Seattle, something that Ellen was looking forward to. Although it’s hardly a life-or-death matter, Ellen is angry and hurt. It isn’t the first—or second—time that Jessie has done something like this; Jessie’s casual sorry in response to her just confirming makes Ellen feel devalued and dismissed, yet she keeps believing that Jessie will keep her word because they’ve known each other since adolescence and, she thought, have a deep connection.

The scene takes place at the Seattle Airport. Ellen has phoned Jessie, who’s just delivered the bad news. Your goal, as the writer, is to make the reader see, believe, and empathize with Ellen’s response.

You can sabotage that goal by doing too much—if you over-write by saying the same thing two or three times (in different ways) or resort to melodrama. Either way, you’re bombarding the reader, throwing too much at her instead of beckoning her into the scene.

You can also undermine your goal by doing too little—if you gloss over the moment and miss the chance to bring Ellen’s feelings to life.

And you can spoil the effect by doing the same thing in every scene, to the exclusion of other techniques. Skillful writing has economy, variety, and intention.

FIRST, let’s look at some strategies that include a line of dialogue.

Use an evocative verb instead of “said”

 “Actually, it’s not okay,” Ellen snapped.

The verb snapped is economical, conveying a tone of voice and the emotion behind it in a single word. Although said is still considered the “talking verb” of choice, strong verbs can be effective if used sparingly and strategically.

Use a tag that shows how the comment was delivered

“Actually,” Ellen said, her voice cold, “it’s not okay.”

“Actually,” Ellen said. She dropped the words like chips of ice into a bowl. “Actually, it’s not okay.”

Here, the generic said is accompanied by a phrase that tells the reader how the comment is uttered. It’s another way of doing what adverbs used to do.

Use a tag that shows the speaker’s facial expression

Ellen’s smile disappeared. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not okay.        

The reader can see Ellen’s face and, from that, know what she’s feeling and intuit how her words sound.

Use a tag that shows the speaker’s gesture or movement

Ellen pulled in her breath and shifted the phone to her other hand. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not okay.”

The tag describes what else Ellen is doing before or as she speaks. Instead of telling the reader how she is speaking, the phrase adds to the overall impression by bringing in another sense, beyond the auditory.

NOW, let’s eliminate the line of dialogue and show what the spoken words might have conveyed, but through other strategies.

Interior reflection: thought, talking to oneself about what just happened

This was exactly the sort of thing that Jessie always did. Damn it, why did she always get taken in by promises that Jessie never meant to keep?

This is the voice of the POV character, talking to herself, as if she were another person. This kind of interiority has gotten a bad reputation lately (“in her head”), but there’s nothing wrong with it. It will misfire, however, if it goes on too long, is employed too frequently, or is used as an all-too-obvious ploy to convey information that the author wants the reader to know.

Put yourself in Ellen’s shoes. In the middle of an intense emotional reaction, would you really tell yourself a detailed story about something you already know? Of course not! However, if that anecdote has already appeared in the book, then a quick reference to it, in the present scene, can be very effective. In the example above, Ellen is remembering a pattern. Words like “always get taken in” will evoke that pattern in the reader too.

Used judiciously, this can also be a place for the POV character to worry about something that might happen in the future.

This was exactly the sort of thing Jessie always did. What if she pulled that disappearing stunt again at the meeting with Lionel, when she really needed Jessie to come through for her?

Interior reaction: emotions

Damn it. That woman made her blood boil. She wanted to reach through the cell phone and grab Jessie by her shoulders, right in the middle of her shrug, and scream into her smug little face.

This kind of blow-by-blow emotional accompaniment to the narrative is associated with what’s called “close third-person POV.” Overt rather than subtle, it’s meant to pull the reader deep inside the experience. For me, a little goes a long way. Used endlessly, it feels like I’m being assaulted and told what to feel. It’s most effective—again, in my opinion— when saved for climactic moments and interspersed with techniques that give the reader more space.

Visceral sensation: body

Ellen felt her stomach twist.

The fist in her stomach twisted another forty-five degrees.

Instead of being named or described, the reaction is evoked through a bodily sensation that readers can recognize. The reader will make the connection; the author doesn’t have to tell her to.

In the first example, Ellen is the subject of the sentence. In the second, the fist itself is the subject. As with other techniques, the challenge is to use visceral examples that are common enough to be understandable, but not trite.

Evocative gesture

Ellen lifted a strand of hair from her cheek and placed it carefully behind her ear.

Here, nothing is said. Instead, gesture is used to show how Ellen is feeling. Presumably, by this point in the story the reader will know what “adjusting a strand of hair” means for her, especially if it’s a characteristic gesture—if it’s her way of buying time, feeling in control by putting things in their proper places, self-soothing, etc.

Movement or external action

Ellen crossed the boarding area in three quick strides and banged her palm against the wall.

This strategy differs from the use of gesture because it puts the POV into interaction with her environment. As a result, something (or someone) outside of herself may be affected, and additional events may be set in motion.

“Pulling away” for an external description, through the lens of the narrator

The airport corridor was filled with people hurrying to and from the gates, dragging suitcases or holding cups of coffee aloft. Ellen stopped, the phone still pressed to her cheek, as people stepped around her in surges of color and movement. She was the only person not moving, the only one with nowhere to go.

We’ve pulled back, away from Ellen’s close POV, and can see her in the airport after Jessie has delivered the unexpected news.  We’re not inside her thoughts or emotions, yet we can “see” very clearly how she feels.

Anthropomorphized or passive-voice telling, through a metaphor or simile

Anger snatched her up with a swipe of its claw, the way her cat snatched at an unsuspecting mouse.

Anger surged through her.

Here, the emotion, not Ellen, is the subject of the sentence. Used strategically, this can be very effective because it draws the reader right inside the emotion itself

Direct telling.

Ellen was livid.

Short and sweet, this can be all you need. It can also serve as a lead-in to an action or conversation.

A dozen ways to convey the same story-moment. Used with intention and spaced well-apart, all are good.

A useful exercise is to go through a few chapters of your WIP to see when, and how often, you’ve used each technique, since we all have habits and preferences. There may even be some that you never use! If you’re working on a laptop, you can highlight instances of each technique in a different color font; on paper, you can circle them with a different colored pen.

If you suspect that you need variety, think about which approach might be most effective at a particular moment. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Is this a moment for economy or for lingering? Will economy short-change the reader’s experience? Will lingering interrupt the flow of the story?
  • Is this a moment when we want to see the character and her reaction in a larger context—how it’s part of the chain of her life, or how it’s embedded in a particular time and place?
  • Is this an important turning point in her emotional journey?  If so, it might call for some interior reflection.
  • Is this a shock or a moment of high intensity? If so, how can you pull the reader into the character’s sensations and body, as well as her emotions?
  • Does the reader need some space, a chance to have her own response, after several intense and immersive scenes?

As a writer, do you tend to use one or more of the techniques listed? Is there a technique that you never use, but now you might? As a reader, is there a device that you especially like? 




About Barbara Linn Probst

Barbara’s (she/her) debut novel QUEEN OF THE OWLS (April 2020) was a medalist in popular fiction from the Independent Publishers Association, first runner-up for the Eric Hoffer Award, and short-listed for the $2500 Grand Prize. Her second novel THE SOUND BETWEEN THE NOTES (April 2021) was the recipient of a Kirkus starred review, where it was lauded as "a tour de force." Barbara has a PhD in Clinical Social Work and has been a therapist, teacher, researcher, and advocate for out-of-the-box kids and their families. When not writing, she’s a serious amateur pianist. Learn more on her website.

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