Say what?

It’s been a while since I bleated on about dialog tags, and the discussion becomes a bit of an issue on the various writer sites I frequent. I’ve talked about how dialog tags – the oldy, moldy “he/she said” – creates a ka-thunk cadence if you don’t mix it up a bit to create balance. But it’s more than that. It robs the reader of action, color, dimension. This means the author either neglects to put that color/dimension/action in, or they have to inject it someplace else.


“You talkin’ to me?” the beagle asked. She wore a surly expression and spit when she talked.

or an even worse example because we are robbed of any kind of description:

“You talkin’ to me?” the beagle asked.

Alone, the sentence won’t cause liquid to shoot out your eyeballs. But when you multiply this times an entire manuscript, it comes off as pedestrian.

Said vs. descriptions

We readers like to know what ‘s going on during dialog. Simple “he said” is tedious without some semblance of setting the scene. All you have are talking heads. And who cares? It’s a snoozefest. You may have a terrific book filled with great characters and fabulous dialog, but you can kill it by forgetting to give us some tactile engagement. You need to go from good to great. Are the characters scratching their bellybuttons, drinking a chocolate martini, reading a menu, petting an errant, lazy beagle?


Rather than using a tag, writers can use descriptive writing to identify the speaker.

The beagle adjusted her hat and rearranged her lacy, pink six-shooter. “You talkin’ to me?”

Overworked and Underpaid Editor’s fingers twitched as they neared her evil red pen. “Yah, I’m talkin’ to you. File those contracts, or the tequila bottle gets it.”

No tags, yet we know who’s doing the talking. The description allows the reader to see the action and heighten their interest.

Descriptive tags

The manner in which you utilize a dialog tag is subjective because you’re looking for a sense of balance. I know many editors here in the US  will yank out every tag that isn’t “said” because the tags take on more importance than the dialog – as in:
” he intoned


…you get the idea. This strikes me as editing by numbers because it’s not that simple. Again, it’s about balance and how the sentences flow and play off each other to create a nice cadence. So while I’m not necessarily that picky about something other than “said,” I do have my radar set to stun because I’ve had manuscripts chock-a-block with these types of tags, and they create a cluttered mess. The overabundance strikes me as fifth-grade writing, and I’m looking for effortless sophistication.

Descriptive tags cause a showdown between Show vs. Tell

The by-product of using descriptive tags is the tendency to create a gunbattle between Show vs. Tell. Over reliance forces those tags do the work of the writing. IMO, it places way too much importance on the tag, thus robbing the reader from seeing the full picture.

“Look, a beagle that drinks margaritas!” he laughed.

Again, as a stand-alone, this is fine. But when a manuscript is filled with descriptive tags, it’s dull and lifeless because it’s all Tell. So what? The dialog is curious – a drinking beagle? Doesn’t that deserve something more than a “he laughed”? This is what I’d rather see in a submission:

He put his beer down and stared, disbelieving, at the apparition sitting at the bar. “Look, a beagle that drinks margaritas!”

To me, it’s the difference between a front yard that has a nice lawn and a front yard that explodes with flowers, bushes, and a patch of deep green grass. In this day and age of stiff writing competition, it makes sense to pay close attention to something as seemingly small, but achingly important, like our little friend, the dialog tag. Use him sparingly and with balance.

Otherwise we may be tempted to utter, “Say what?

5 Responses to Say what?

  1. catwoods says:

    I wonder if we will ever learn that balance is the key to everything in life?

    Nothing is black or white. In particular, great writing is filled with nuances of gray. We writers just need to realize that a manuscript written to fulfill every hard and fast rule provided by editors and agents is nothing but a lifeless stack of paper with ink splotches.

    Thanks for the quick tutorial.

  2. I have never heard anyone laugh dialogue. I know I couldn’t laugh a complete sentence.

    I have heard someone burp dialogue, though, but they were six years old.

  3. Really? Then you haven’t heard me talk. I laugh through an entire conversation if I’m anywhere near Janet Reid.

  4. writtenwyrdd says:

    Thank you! I get very tired of those who adamantly insist that you never use anything but said in a dialog tag. Rote following of writing ‘rules’ is not the best way to go about crafting a story.

  5. Joel Derfner says:

    Shirley Jackson writes–I can’t, alas, remember where–about the effectiveness of using exactly the *wrong* word. The example she gives is:

    “I love you,” he giggled.

    which I think is pretty ^&@$ing brilliant.

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