The other day I was having a phone conversation with a student about dialogue tags. Dialogue tags are what you include on the end of lines of dialogue to indicate who is speaking. I was going through the different reasons not to use “creative” dialogue tags, which students have a hard time letting go of. I’m sure I used creative dialogue tags myself in my earlier work, though all evidence has been destroyed. As I became a more experienced writer, though, I learned what a grave, grave error creative dialogue tags tend to be.
What’s the difference between a creative dialogue tag and a regular dialogue tag, you ask? Let me show you:
Creative Dialogue Tags:
“Hey,” she sniffed. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he murmured.
“How’s Julia?” she inquired.
“She left me,” he sighed.
Ugh, it makes my eyes bleed. I don’t even know what happened in that scene because I was too distracted by the overuse of dialogue tags that stuck out like sore, broken thumbs sticking into my eyes like hot pokers.
Here’s an example of the same scene with regular old dialogue tags and some action to give a clearer sense of what’s going on:
Regular Old Dialogue Tags:
“Hey,” she said. “What’s up?”
“Nothing,” he said. His shoulders shrugged. He wouldn’t look her in the eye.
“How’s Julia?” she asked. Her voice softened at the lilt, and she leaned forward. She took his hand in hers.
He rubbed the back of his head with the heel of his hand, roughly, like he was sanding a piece of furniture. His eyes dropped beyond the floor, into the sixth layer of the Earth, into the molten lava and dinosaur bones, or whatever was down there beneath the water and dirt.
“She left me.” His voice broke on the last word. Claire stiffened, but didn’t let go of his hand.
So, it’s not Pulitzer winning stuff, but do you see how much more you can get out of a scene when you let dialogue tags fade into the background and use action to show emotion instead of trying to let the “creative” tags do the work for you? “Creative” tags, which are really just a variety of verbs no one ever uses in real life, are lazy. People use them to avoid using any real concrete language or imagery in their storytelling, and that simply will not do.
Consider this: when you tell someone a story in person, you never use a variety of verbs. You’ll say “Then I said, then he said, then I was like, then he was like.” You never say “Then I announced, then he inquired, then I hinted, then he sneezed (you can’t sneeze words, by the way), then I shouted, then he commanded,” and so on and so on. That sounds ridiculous, right? Right.