Today, I’m addressing the hotly disputed (well, not hotly disputed, but disputed nonetheless) topic: dialogue tags.
Let’s start with a definition. A dialogue tag is a phrase that follows, precedes, or breaks up dialogue in writing to describe how the character in question spoke. For example, in the sentence “‘I love to read Annie Likes Words’, said Sarah,” “said Sarah” is the dialogue tag. From these two words, we learn that Sarah spoke and that she said it in a neutral way.
The great debate here is over whether or not to use “said.” Using extravagant verbs to describe how someone speaks can sound garish and overworked, but it can also be rather descriptive. On the other hand, using only “said” brings a level of simplicity and conciseness to your writing while reducing the possibility of sounding ostentatious.
In my writing, I prefer to stick to “said” most of the time. Unless I make the creative decision at the beginning of the piece to use these extravagant dialogue tags, I’m all about “said” for the reasons I listed above. I find that overly descriptive dialogue tags can be distracting while reading, causing me to focus more on how the writer was trying to pinpoint exactly how the character spoke. “Said” gets the job done, so why fix it if it ain’t broken?
Rather than finding specific tags to describe dialogue, I prefer to provide details while describing the character as he’s speaking. Here’s an example:
“Why didn’t you do the dishes?” Mom nagged.
With this example, we get the basic information: someone was supposed to do the dishes, but didn’t, and now Mom is annoyed. But watch what happens here:
“Why didn’t you do the dishes?” Mom said, crossing her arms over her chest and furrowing her brow. She pushed her hair out of her face with a vengeance, revealing the tips of her ears: they were bright pink, like they always were when she was irritated.
Here, we got the same information, but in a more realistic way. We learn about Mom as a person. We learn about her body language, her idiosyncrasies, the things that are unique to her. Everyone nags in a differnt way and we learn Mom’s way by describing it here. Both of these examples get you to the same general place, but the second example’s path has a better view.
With that being said, I will break my own rules for a special set of circumstances.
I will stray from my norm if the character in question is speaking at a different volume, such as shouting or whispering. There are certainly ways you can incorporate this information into the surrounding sentences, but I think volume needs to be directly attached to the dialogue because volume level and dialogue, you know, go together.