Today we will take a look at dialogue and dialogue tags to answer some common questions. How often should we writers follow dialogue with descriptions of reactions of the speaker? How much is safe to leave to the reader’s reasoning skills?
Clarity above all else
The most important consideration with dialogue is clarity. This is broadly true for all aspects of writing but more so when the characters are speaking. Any ambiguity as to the speaker will cause a reader to stop to figure it out, re-read to try and work it out, or just give up.
When, then, is it okay to skip the “he said” and “she said” and move on to the next paragraph?
Omit when the speaker is obvious
When it is obvious who is speaking, it can be safe to ommit all dialouge tags. For example, if there are only two characters and you tagged one speaker already, the reply should carry well enough without anything more than what was said.
How long you can keep this going is a matter of genre, taste, writing style, and average reader attention spans. As you are not writing a radio play, some interaction of speaker and environment can help to keep the reader anchored in the location. Location is a character too and should get some love and attention.
How to make the speaker obvious
An excellent way to make the speaker obvious is to work on natural-sounding speech that sets a character apart from other characters. For example, a character with a doctorate is likely to use longer and less common words than a fisherman with a preference for profanity. That’s an extreme example, but you would hardly need attributions nor beats in that conversation.
If you are the least bit uncertain if a reader will follow without looking for confermation of speaker, get a said in as soon as humanly possible.
Beats in dialogue
Beats are actions or descriptions that often preceed speech. For example.
John fiddled with his buttons. “I don’t see why I have to do it,” he said.
Beats are another way to introduce who is speaking without an attribution. However, use them sparingly. Just enough to keep us in the time and place and no more.
The reason to be sparing is that they can jar the reader out of the conversation and remind them that they are reading not listening.
Beats are like salt. A little make things better but too much ruins the dish.
Some attributions are actually invisible
Readers will hardly even recognise that you have used some attribution tags. Get them in as soon as humanly possible and they will focus on the text and subtext of the conversation rather than trying to figure out who is speaking.
Not all attributions are invisible. Pretty much “said” is always invisible and you can use it with careless abandon. Asked is often invisible. Everything else should be used only if absolutely necessary because they stick out. Things that stick out during conversation scenes spoil the flow.
Just use said
Newer writers tend to try and find other words instead of said. For example, commented, shouted, yelled, whispered… These words force the reader to switch out of the conversation to read and comprehend the what and the why.
You rarely want readers to notice the writing. You will generally want them to get lost in the moment. Said allows that while, as I said before, most everything else hinders that.
Pretty much, you always want to use said. Why show us but then tell us too? Use a replacement only if you really feel it helps your writing.
Over to an expert (Brand Sanderson)
Over to you
Do you agree with my take on dialogue tags? What advice would you offer? Let me know in the comments down below. I always read the comments and they let me know that what I have written is useful or helpful.