Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Who said that? Dialogue Tags.

Whether you know them as tag lines, dialogue tags, or identifiers, the “he said”s and the “she said”s are the necessary evils of writing dialogue. Overused, and they sound weird and repetitive. Underused, and things get very confusing. The last thing you want is for your readers to lose track of who is talking. Unless that’s the point of the scene.

This is from Jasper Fforde’s brilliant Thursday Next series. It’s the second book in the series, Lost in a Good Book

     ‘So one of you is fictional,’ I announced, looking at them both.
     ‘And we have to find out who it is,” remarked Tweed, levelling his pistol in their direction.
     “Might be Yorrick Kaine-’ I added, staring at Kaine who glared back at me, wondering what we were up to.
     ‘-failed right wing politician-’
     ‘-with a cheery enthusiasm for war-’
     ‘-and putting a lid on civil liberties.’
     Tweed and I bantered lines back and forth for as long as we dared, faster and faster, the blows from the Beast outside matching the blows from Raffles’ hammer within.
     ‘Or perhaps it is Volescamper-’
     ‘-Lord of the old realm who wants-’
     ‘-to try and get-’
     ‘-back into power with the help-’
     ‘-of his friends in the Whig party?’
     ‘But the important thing is, in all this dialogue-’
     ‘-that has pitched back and forth between-’
     ‘-the two of us, a fictional person-’
     ‘-might have lost track of which one of us is talking.”
     “And do you know, in all the excitement, I kind of forgot myself!
     There was another crash against the door. A splinter of steel flew off and zipped past my ear. The doors were almost breached; the next blow would bring the abomination within the room.
     ‘So you’re going to have to ask yourselves one simple question: Which one of us is speaking now?

Buy Lost in a Good Book at Amazon

There is a way around using direct dialogue tags, and that’s by interspersing action with the dialogue. I do this a lot. Too much, probably. There are only so many times a character can play with their hair, or stare at the floor, or sigh, before you realise they’re so full of themselves that you want to punch them in the head.

As in all things, it’s about the balance. Because if you forget whose turn it is to talk, things just get confusing. And hilarious:

And maybe I wrote a whole post about dialogue just to share that video with you. 


  1. Lol! Dialog tags are a beast. I'll figure them out someday ...

  2. Amen sister. I got rid of as many 'saids' as I could, then had to put some of them back in. I feel saidistic again.

    also, I gave you an award!

  3. Awesome video.

    I'm iffy about dialogue tags. I think, if you want to get rid of some of them, the key is to write your dialogue in a way that naturally avoid them. If that makes any sense.

  4. "And maybe I wrote a whole post about dialogue just to share that video with you."

    I hope so, because that would be awesome.

  5. Very funny ^^

    I recently read a book that not only lacked tags but also speech marks. Much confusion was had by all ^^;

    I'm taking out my "how to tell readers people are talking without using the word 'said'" because it got ridiculous.

  6. Oh man, I think if I could see Fry and Laurie live I could die happy. That is brilliant!

    Personally, I despise books where I get confused about who's talking. Anything that makes me stop and go back to clear up confusion is likely to make me just stop reading.

  7. Stephen Fry is brilliant. I miss Hugh Laurie being a funny man (sometimes House underplays how great of a actor he is).

  8. I love how Forde is having such convention-busting fun with that scene (with an homage to Clint Eastwood to boot), and the same with the sketch - there's so many levels going on at once, you wonder how long it took to rehearse and make it look so spontaneous.

  9. @ JA. Me too, I hope!

    @ TB, thanks! Yay!

  10. @ Margo, you know I did!

    Miss Cole, dialogue is one of the things that rips me right out of a story if it's not convincing, or falls flat, or, worse, when it's blatant back story. But the worst thing of Ll is when there are not enough tags or actions to keep track of who is talking. If it happens too often, I just give up.

  11. @ Sarah, I agree on both counts! I love Fry and Laurie!

    @ GK. Thanks! The trick with writing, I hope, is to read so much that you develop a sense for what sounds natural and what doesn't.

    @ Steph. Hugh Laurie is brilliant in House, but I miss his English accent. I would love to see him team up with Stephen Fry again. They were brilliant as Wooster and Jeeves.

  12. MC, They are hilarious books and the world building is phenomenal. The first one is The Eyre Affair. Time travel, pet dodos, fictional characters, literary detectives and the Crimean war still being fought. It's got everything!

  13. Jen, what a great post. Just arrived here, sorry I'm late, I'm late! Being new on this writers campaign I am still wading through all the blogs. Yours is wonderful by the way and have to admit I have problems with dialogue myself. It's hard finding small talk *shrugs* oh well! Guess I'll figure it out eventually. Looking forward having fun on this campaign with you.

  14. @ thepatientdreamer, thanks! I'm slowly working my way around to everyone in my groups. I'm also a first-timer, so I've got no idea what I'm doing either. But it's going to be fun finding out!

  15. Hi Jen, Thanks for stopping by. I went to Townsville this January and absolutely love it, even thought of getting a B&B business there, one day. Back to dialogue tags, they are so very important.

    Every Savage Can Reproduce

  16. Wow, that was a very young Hugh Laurie! Fabulous!!

    In my first draft, I had tags all over the place, (and they usually ended with an adverb.) Then I took most of them out only to add a few back in. I, too, tend to use action to solidify who the speaker is. And while I dislike overusing tags, I hate when writers don't use them enough and you have to go back and count the lines to determine who is speaking. I'm careful never to let this happen.

    But I also think only using he said or she said is too dull. While I may use said 90% of the time, I do try to mix it up a bit, as well.

  17. Jen, I'm a fellow dystopian Campaigner so I hopped on by to say hello. I like action tags too! That "he said she said" thing gets old fast. And then, if only two people are talking you can do away with tags completely for a bit.

  18. Popping over from TB's award.
    So you like Fry and Laurie, huh?
    Great stuff :)

  19. I have such trouble with dialogue, it's the one thing I have to pay VERY close attention to and rewrite until I want to stab my eyes out.

    It is all about balance though. You can't "he said, she said" constantly, and I think natural dialogue flows easily without needing too many cues, especially when there are only two people talking.

    I wish someone would come write my dialogue for me.

  20. @ Enid, hi! Townsville is lovely in the winter, but we do our penance in the summer. Nothing beats those tropical breezes though.

  21. @ Nancy, I prefer to use action as well. Too many "said"s starts to sound like a stammer in the end.

    Hi Catherine, nice to meet you - although I've visited your brilliant blog before! I'm looking forward to the Campaign!

    @ Small Town Shelly Brown, I love Fry and Laurie. Nobody does humour like the Brits!

    @ Sommer Leigh: I love dialogue, mainly because of all the fun you can have with subtext, and what people aren't saying. Action though, I could use help with!

  22. Congrats! You have received an award on my blog. Stop by to claim it.



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