Just Say It

Dialogue is one of the trickiest elements of writing. The ability to capture on the page the natural flow of speech and conversation is a skill that comes naturally to some writers and evades others. But never fear. Writing dialogue well can be learned.

There are three components to dialogue: words of speech, cadence and flow, and dialogue tags, all of which together can reveal the character’s personality, temperament, ethnicity, and current emotion or mood. Here, I’m going to address dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags are the two words at the end or in the middle of a line of speech, e.g., “said John” or “John responded.” Their main purpose is to keep the reader informed as to which character is speaking. But when they are overused, they tend to interrupt the flow of conversation and thus distract and irritate the reader. The first rule I abide by is this: When there are only two characters in a scene, it’s not necessary to include a dialogue tag every time each character speaks. However, in lengthy scenes of dialogue, do add them occasionally to keep the reader up to speed as to who is speaking. And of course, in scenes containing more than two characters, including dialogue tags more often is necessary.

The second rule I adhere to like glue: use any word apart from said sparingly. I came to accept this rule kicking and screaming because, in my own writing, I loved using the diverse tags that (I thought) added such color and depth to my scenes. Clever words like opinedelaborated, and divulged along with everyday words like explainedinterrupted, and replied. However, as an editor, I now embrace and laud this rule, as I’ve seen over and over that these tags often distract from the narrative and, yes, even sound pretentious. And in most cases, they are redundant and therefore unnecessary. In the course of the dialogue, it is typically apparent that a character is opining, elaborating, divulging, explaining, interrupting, or replying.

So remember: go easy on the use of dialogue tags in scenes containing only two characters and refrain from overusing various words in dialogue tags. Often, a simple “said” is sufficient.