He Said, She Said: The Key to Writing Great Dialogue Tags

I’ve been doing some experiments lately with dialogue tags, because I think as writers who have grown up in a visual age, we tend to ascribe more action to a dialogue tag than is strictly necessary. Eye rolling, hand gestures, he sat, she sighed, they exploded (okay, maybe nobody exploded, but you see my point). In general, this has been one of my biggest offenses as a writer: I see the action happen in my head, and I want to make sure that the reader is able to visualize the whole thing equally well. The problem with this, however, comes with the fact that there are a finite number of actions that can come with a piece of dialogue. As a result, a character is continually sighing, rolling his eyes, looking down or up or off to the side or into the distance… It becomes repetitive. Which is why, it turns out, the really good writers let their dialogue convey the action for them.

Here’s a conversation written by Marti Leimbach from The Man From Saigon. Note that the dialogue in this scene is italicized because that’s the way it’s written in the book.

You’re all right? he said as they crossed Cholon in the taxi.
I’m thinking about Thanh. Thanh owned the hotel where she stayed. He was a fat little guy who gave Marc disapproving looks whenever he entered the hotel with her. He brought me another lizard.
They’re not lizards. They’re geckos. Or anoles.
He says they will eat the insects.
Bug spray. And a new lock on your door. Basic stuff. Tell him you would like running water, for example.
He didn’t like the hotel. He was always trying to get her to leave it, find a room elsewhere.
You don’t have to hate him.
I don’t hate him.
The taxi glided down the road; he kissed her hair. Stay in my room. If I’m there, if I’m not, he said, though he knew she wouldn’t.

The action revolves around the concrete: crossing Cholon in the taxi, who people are, how the character feels about them. The single action ascribed to a speaker is “he kissed her hair” – something that’s very specific, and conveys perfectly the tenderness Marc feels for Susan, the woman with whom he is having this conversation.

Even when you head to more mainstream, genre fiction, the best writers tend to keep their dialogue tags simple. In NYT bestselling writer James Lee Burke’s In the Moon of Red Ponies,here is an exchange between main character Billy Bob Holland and Darrel McComb, a cop who’s gone off the rails.

…Darrel McComb came into my office, twirling a porkpie hat impatiently on his finger.
“You think Dixon is a hero?” he said.
“He saved my wife’s life.”
“Maybe he was behind her accident, too.”
I waited for him to go on, but he didn’t. I set down the pen I was writing with. “I don’t have anything else to do. I’ll bite,” I said.
“Our mechanic says somebody punched a hole in your brake line.”
“You’re sure. It wasn’t hit by a rock or – ”
“It was a clean cut, about a quarter way through the line. The mechanic says maybe it was done with wire cutters or tin snips.”
My mouth felt dry, my stomach sick. “It wasn’t Dixon,” I said.
“Why not?”
I could feel anger rising in me at his deliberate obtuseness, his 1950s crew cut, his small, downturned mouth, his jockstrap aggressiveness. “The man can’t swim, but he dove in the river and almost got himself killed. On another subject, what’s the nature of your relationship with Greta Lundstrom, anyway?” I said.
“My relationship?”
“You two seem to be an item. Bad timing, if you ask me. You know, conflict of interest, sleeping with the enemy, that sort of thing?”
“You want to repeat that more slowly?”
“I think she hired the guys who attacked Dixon. I think you know it, too.”
“You’re out of line.”
“The same people who killed Lester Antelope probably sabotaged my truck. But for some reason you’ve got a perpetual hard-on about Dixon. Maybe you ought to get your priorities straight.”
“I heard you accidentally shot and killed your partner down on the border. That’s too bad. I guess carrying something like that around could make anybody a full-time asshole,” he said.

In this, the dialogue tags are almost nonexistent. Burke doesn’t even bother with switching tags up with things like “asked” or “replied.” There are no adverbs, and when narrator Billy Bob Holland mentions his anger rising, he speaks in very visual, concrete language; he is angry, and that anger is directed toward the 1950s crew cut and the jockstrap aggressiveness – a visceral image that will remain with the reader throughout this conversation. Beyond that, we get a perfect picture of how this conversation is taking place because, (a) the rhythm, content, and structure of the dialogue conveys how the characters feel about what is being said, and (b) as visual beings ourselves, we the readers can imagine the other stuff – the italicized “relationship” is all we need to know that McComb’s voice rose on the line, and likewise lines like “You want to repeat that more slowly,” and “You’re out of line,” tell us that the conversation is becoming more heated. The final line “I guess carrying something like that around could make anybody a full-time asshole,” is all we need to know about how these characters feel about one another and what their delivery of those lines might have been.

When you’re reading through your work, look at your dialogue. If it seems that you are describing the speaker as they are saying the words, try striking those descriptions and see if your scene still stands. A couple of well-chosen sentences placing the scene interspersed with strong, realistic dialogue, will keep your reader engaged far more effectively than a page of tags describing how your characters said what they said.

Jen Blood is author of the bestselling Erin Solomon Mysteries, and owner and veteran editor at Adian Writing, Editing & Publishing Consultation. For your free Editing A to Z Cheat Sheet, simply click the link

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