“There are only two possible dialog tags,” he said.

quotesPicture the scene:

You and a friend are having lunch by the water. Their phone rings. They chat for a moment, hang up, and turn to you and tell you it was Bob.

If you’re nosy, you ask a question.

“What did he . . . ” What?

Aver? Shout? Insist? Snarl?

In 99.9% of cases studied, you said “What did he say?”

Because you were both expecting this call, your lunchmate shares, rather than thinking you a nosyparker.

“He . . . ” What?

“He insisted . . . ”

“He whispered . . . ”

No, again, in 99.78% of cases researched, they say “He said . . .”

When quoting another person, or when requesting a quote, we use one verb.

Said.

It is the only word we use in daily speech to refer to words uttered by another. (Or written: “What does Joel’s cranky post say?”)

If you include dialog tags in your writing, use “said.” It is invisible to readers. Anything else pulls them from flow, kills the vicarious experience. This is the cardinal sin of writing: disrupting the reader’s enjoyment of the world you’ve created for them.

There’s one other acceptable alternative: no dialog tags at all.

Use action to make it clear who’s speaking. Yes, even among a number of speakers, though it’s child’s play with only two.

Here are four characters talking over dinner in a nice restaurant. We’ve already met them earlier in the book, so I’ll give you a quick rundown of what a reader thus far would already know:

Sara and Tommy have been married for almost 7 years. She’s an amateur chef. He’s a web designer.

Michelle is Sara’s sister. She and Reg recently got engaged. Dinner was a gift from Sara and Tommy to celebrate.

Here’s the scene. Let me know at what point it’s unclear who’s speaking.

After the waiter rolled his dessert tray away, Michelle and Sara both looked at Tommy.

“What?”

Sara squeezed his hand. “Two desserts? Really?”

He glanced at Reg, who shrugged. “It’s, um, research. You’re such a good cook, Sara. I keep checking to see if anyone’s as good.”

Reg laughed. “Sure. Got it. These two ladies are so dumb they’ll fall for that.” When he saw the look on his fiancee’s face, he backtracked, editing his comment.

“I mean, y’know, not. Of course.”

She laughed at his discomfort. “Oh, sweetie, I know you don’t think we’re dumb. Though I felt silly, walking in here thinking it was a business meeting and seeing baby sister and her hubby waiting for us.”

She mock glared at Michelle.

“Hey, I didn’t say what kind of business. You want to open a restaurant so bad, you fooled yourself.”

But now she looked at her husband. “But ever since we cooked up that ruse, I’ve been thinking.”

He’d had his chin resting on one hand, elbow on the table. “Me too. I really have.”

“No way!” Both ladies had leaned forward when he spoke, and after shouting in unison, they high-fived each other.

“Sorry, Reg. This is supposed to be about you two, not my wife’s dream of opening a restaurant.”

“No worries. I’ve been wondering when it was going to come up. Looking forward to it, actually.”

“There are only two possible ways to tag dialog,” he said.

Note: this rule applies to quotes. If you ask “What was he yelling about?” that’s not a quote. If your lunchmate says “He’s demanding money” that’s, again, not a quote.

2 thoughts on ““There are only two possible dialog tags,” he said.

  1. Good tips as always, though I’m not 100% convinced that “said” is invisible; it grates on me after a while. You’re correct that by shifting the narrative to the characters’ actions, you can avoid using dialog tags. And closing quotation marks offer a clue that one person has finished speaking.

    Another technique that adds a dimension to dialogue is to put unspoken thoughts in italics. This allows you to play what’s said out loud against what isn’t. If, for example, one character is being hustled another, he might acknowledge that in italics and then feign interest in his spoken responses. The reader is privy to the game while the salesman is not.

    1. Good points. As always.

      I don’t make enough use of those unspoken thoughts, nor of subtext in general.

      I have to agree, “said” probably isn’t as invisible as I claimed. That would explain why I’ve scrupulously avoided dialog tags in my fiction.

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