2nd Law of Joni’s Writing Bible

2nd Law – Thou shalt not overuse dialogue tags.  

A dialogue tag links the speaker to their words in prose.  They inform the reader which character is speaking.  They are necessary!  Oh, so necessary.  We need to know who is speaking.  We must have ‘said’.  However, we do NOT have to say said after every sentence spoken.  Our readers should know who is speaking and who is being spoken to without beating them over the head with it.

Wrong:

“We’re out of butter,” said John.

“Are we?” asked Darla.  “I could have sworn there was more in the freezer,” she said.

“No, I used the last yesterday making popcorn,” said John.

“Then you should have gone to the store,” said Darla.  “Why do I have to do everything?” she said.

Right:

“We’re out of butter,” said John.

“Are we?” said Darla.  “I could have sworn there was more in the freezer.”

“No, I used the last yesterday making popcorn.”

“Then you should have gone to the store.  Why do I have to do everything?”

We know who was speaking even without the tags after every period.  Reducing dialogue tags cleans up the prose and tells our readers that we trust them to understand what we’ve written.  Readers are smarter than many writers believe them to be.

Now, that being said, we also do not follow the teaching of elementary school teachers.  Do you remember your teachers telling you to NOT use the word said?  I do.  Words like shouted, whispered, laughed, yelled, questioned, were encouraged instead of ever using the word said.  I’m sure the purpose was to help children to understand the emotion of writing, but to never use the word said?  Said is the staple.  It is the word that become invisible as long as we do not overuse it.

Wrong:

“I can’t take it anymore!” shouted Jeremy.

“Why are you shouting?” yelled Eliza.

“This is the hundredth time I’ve tried this,” growled Jeremy.

“Then give it a rest!” snapped Eliza.

“You don’t understand addiction,” pouted Jeremy.

“It’s a video game, Jeremy,” laughed Eliza.  “Relax”

Do you see the problem?  It is fine to use other dialogue tags.  It really is, but the overuse creates melodrama and bipolar characters.  Your reader should be able to infer the mood by the dialogue.  Again, don’t beat them over the head.  Overuse will send readers away not liking your work.

Right:

“I can’t take it anymore!” said Jeremy.

“Why are you shouting?” said Eliza.

“This is the hundredth time I’ve tried this.”

“Then give it a rest.”

“You don’t understand addiction,” pouted Jeremy.

“It’s a video game, Jeremy.  Relax.”

So, using other dialogue tags can work, but I use them only when the character’s actions or situation make it a necessity.  Sometimes we need to be told someone is whispering or shouting.  Just make it flow.  Keep it simple.