Dialogue tags are not the place to get creative if you want to draw your reader in. Leave that to the dialogue itself.
I’ve never met a writer, whether working on an epic fantasy novel or a true-life account of a harrowing experience, who hasn’t wanted her reader to get completely lost in the words on the page. While there are many things that separate fact from fiction, there’s one thing that all writers ignore at their peril: a good, hard, honest self-edit.
Let’s talk dialogue. Fiction writers learn quickly that there’s nothing as terrible as stiff, unrealistic dialogue to pull a reader out of the story. And while non-fiction writers can’t falsify direct quotes, there’s plenty they can do to ensure the flow is natural. The first place to start is by cutting out as many dialogue tags as you can.
You want the reader to read right over those tags as if they’re not there. Dialogue tags exist for only one purpose: to identify for the reader who is speaking in your manuscript. That’s it. You want the focus on the dialogue itself. You don’t want readers to get distracted by the tag.
This is one of the most common mistakes new writers make. They think words like asked or said are boring or repetitive, so they try to use more interesting alternatives.
Trust me: dialogue tags are not the place to get fancy. Dialogue tags should melt into the background. Said and asked are all you need. Resist the urge to use queried instead of asked, or exclaimed instead of said. All those flourishes will do is tell readers you’re a newbie.
If you’re writing creative non-fiction, you get to have some fun and create dialogue in your story. It doesn’t have to be verbatim, as long as it’s true to your telling of the story.
There’s also the tendency to use the dreaded –ly adverb in your dialogue tag.
Consider this: Dialogue tags are not the place to convey emotion – the dialogue itself should do that. If you think you need an adverb to convey emotion, your scene needs to be written so the character’s dialogue and actions more clearly express that emotion. It’s the difference between showing and telling.
Here’s an example we use in AutoCrit when explaining the problem with adverbs in dialogue.
“I’ve had enough,” Simon said angrily.
This simply tells us that Simon is angry. But that emotion isn’t demonstrated through his actions or the dialogue itself.
Remember what we said earlier about dialogue tags: Readers read right over them. Their only purpose is to tell the reader who is speaking.
So if you want the reader to feel Simon’s anger, you have to show them through the dialogue itself. Here’s how you might do it:
“You disgust me. This conversation is over,” Simon said.
Here, Simon’s words are angry, so you don’t need to rely on the adverb angrily to convey that. The dialogue is stronger and the emotion is clear.
You could also include some brief actions or descriptions to eliminate the adverb and convey the character’s emotion.
Simon shoved back his chair and slammed his fist on the table. “I’ve had enough,” he said, clenching his jaw. “This discussion is over.”
The actions and description here help show how Simon feels, so we can easily eliminate the word angrily from that dialogue tag.
Whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, you are telling a story. Dialogue is one of the most powerful elements in storytelling.
Using beats to bring your dialogue to life
Why do you need professional editing for your novel?
Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules for writing
How to revise your novel through a read-aloud and critique workshop
Janet Fitch’s 10 tips that can help any writer