As an editor and a writer of fiction, one of the biggest issues I see is authors who do not know how to write dialogue tags. A dialogue tag is that “he said,” “she replied” wording attached to the dialogue to clarify who says what. The problem is most beginning authors—and I was guilty of this myself in the past—tend to overdo them. For example, they might write:
“I want my teddy bear back!” she demanded loudly.
There’s no need for “loudly” here—how else would she say this if there is an exclamation mark at the end? There’s also no need for demanded. It’s obvious she’s making a demand by the words she spoke. Just “she said” is sufficient here, or in the context of the overall scene, perhaps “she replied.” It’s possible you might not even need a dialogue tag if only two people are in the scene and it’s clear who is speaking.
As a general rule, there are only three acceptable verbs for dialogue tags: said, replied, and asked. Some authors will tell you “said” is the only acceptable one, but I do think “said” starts to sound repetitive if it’s the only one you use.
But why only those three verbs? The purpose of a dialogue tag is to make it clear who says something. That is its only purpose. Most beginning authors, however, feel they need to tell us how people say something. That’s not at all necessary because it should be clear from the words spoken how something is said.
Here are two more examples:
- “I love you,” she whispered softly. No need for softly—can you whisper loudly? Whisper implies it’s said softly. But is whispered even necessary? Now and then, I might let it go, but I think “said” is sufficient again.
- “I’m going to kill you!” he exclaimed loudly. As with “whispered softly” the adverb is unnecessary. How else do you exclaim than loudly? But “exclaimed” isn’t needed either. The exclamation point already made it clear that the words were being exclaimed. Here “said” might not be the best choice since it sounds mild, so I would use “replied” if appropriate. More likely, such a dramatic sentence requires no tag. Or you can describe the action that follows. “Joe said, lunging forward with the knife,” or just “Joe lunged forward with the knife” as a sentence following what Joe said. It will be clear Joe said it.
These examples teach us two lessons: 1) As Stephen King says, “The adverb is not your friend,” so quit using adverbs to describe the verbs in your dialogue tags. 2) You only need “said,” “replied,” and “asked.” Now and then you can get away with another word, but use them very sparingly. Maybe one per the entire conversation, or better yet, the entire book.
Why is using simple dialogue tags so important? Because, as I said above, their only purpose is to clarify who said what. Using elaborate ones only distracts the reader and slows down the action. “He said” is two syllables. “He exclaimed” is three. “He exclaimed loudly” is five. Call me a minimalist, but every syllable counts in writing. You want your sentences to flow and sound musical. You also want to maintain fast pacing in an action scene where someone plans to kill someone else. All those extra syllables just slow down the action. It’s also true that less is more. “I love you” says everything. We don’t need: “I love you,” Mary proclaimed effusively. Hopefully, by the time Mary says these words, we will know Mary well enough to know how she would say them. And as I said, elaborate dialogue tags can distract the reader. Think what image “he ejaculated” puts in the reader’s mind. The reader just quit paying attention to your book because their thoughts went elsewhere.
One final word on dialogue tags. If you choose to use any other than “said,” “replied,” and “asked,” make sure they are words that imply speaking. I see a lot of authors use tags like “she smiled,” “he snorted,” “Mike laughed,” and “Janice beamed.” None of those are dialogue tags. Have you ever, while beaming at someone, had words magically come out of your mouth without speaking? No, I didn’t think so. If you feel it is important to tell us someone is beaming or snorting, tell us after the tag: “Amy said, beaming,” or “Frank replied, snorting.”
As an editor, I spend a lot of time cutting out unnecessary words. As an author, if you learn to tame your dialogue tags, you will be able to cut hundreds of words from your book, all of which are slowing down the reader. Your readers won’t thank you for it because they will never notice those words are missing, but they will be more likely to finish reading your book because the pacing will be better. In the long run, neither of you will regret the loss of a long word or a pesky adverb.
Tyler R. Tichelaar is the founder of Superior Book Productions (www.SuperiorBookProductions.com), a full service editing, proofreading, and book and website design company that began in 2008. He has a PhD in Literature and has taught at three universities. He is the owner of his own publishing company, Marquette Fiction (www.MarquetteFiction.com), and the author of twenty fiction and nonfiction books. For twelve years Tyler served as Vice President (2007-2008) and President (2008-2019) of the Upper Peninsula Publishers and Authors Association. He is also the former regular guest host of the Authors Access Internet Radio Show (2007-2012) and the former book reviewer for Marquette Monthly (2008-2019). More than anything, he loves wordsmithing.