Dialogue is an integral part of most stories. It helps to move the plot, adds depth of character, helps set the scene, can inject humor or other emotions, provides interaction between characters and helps to break up descriptive passages and internal monologues. While dialogue solves many problems it can also add one: dialogue tags.
A dialogue tag is not a children’s game, it’s the little bit of description inserted into the quoted words that clues us in to who is speaking them. Generally there isn’t any dialogue unless you have more than one person and the tags help the reader keep the players straight. However, you want to avoid incessantly repeating phrases like “he said,” or “she replied.” When two people are bantering back and forth in quick, short sentences you can nearly do away with tags all together. Here is an exchange between a man and an officer. The man is reporting his fiance missing under suspect circumstances:
“Tell me again just so I’m sure I’ve got it all down correctly?” the lead officer asked.
“Right,” Dylan replied. “Well, we were almost out of gas so we pulled in to fill up and I had to pee like a race h—”
“Sorry your full name is?”
“Dylan Ryker. R-Y-K-E-R.”
“And the girl?”
“Sara Kayse, as in suitcase, but spelled K-A-Y-S-E .”
“So, you went in to use the men’s room?” the officer prompted.
“Yes sir, and when I came out she was gone.”
“Had the two of you had any kind of argument or fight recently?”
“No! We were engaged to be married.”
“Are. Were. Whatever,” Dylan closed his eyes for a moment to compose himself. “Look, I went in to use facilities, took a few additional minutes to buy some food items and when I came out my fiance and her car were gone.”
In a two person conversation the solution is simple. There is little or no need to keep indicating which person is speaking once the pattern is established. Using tags throughout the exchange would be repetitive, unnecessary and would bog it down. It can get a little trickier, though, when three or more people are speaking.
One way you can help identify speakers is through body language, individual quirks or physical attributes. If one of the characters in a scene is a woman named Stacie who has long blond hair, a mention of her chewing on or fidgeting with her hair can serve as a tag without writing “said Stacie.” If another character—let’s call him Patrick—has previously been described as having a nervous habit of jiggling his leg, mention of that can clue the reader in to who is speaking. If another character speaks with a lisp, and you have been writing in dialect to show the speech impediment, that too helps to sort out the speakers. Here’s an example:
Stacie got up and began pacing while absently braiding and unbraiding her long, blonde hair, “I just don’t know about all of this.”
“What?” said Patrick who’s leg jiggled so violently every time he spoke that the plates on the table rattled. “Are you telling us that you want to back out?”
“No, it just seems—I don’t know—a little underhanded.”
“She’th right, Patrick,” Douglas interjected, “It’th all a bit untheemly.”
“Unseemly or not we have got to do something.” The dishes rattled again.
“Yeth, I’ll give you that but there hath to be thomething elth we can conthider.”
“I agree with Douglas, we can’t just kidnap Josh. He’s a public figure. We could get ourselves into some serious trouble,” she was unbraiding her hair for the third time.
“So what do you recommend we do, Stacie? Let him continue to self destruct?” He looked gravely at both of his friends, “To the point of killing himself?”
“I don’t think that’th going to happen. He thertainly hath to hit bottom thoon, and when he doth, he’ll athk for help.”
“And if he doesn’t?”
Stacie began rebraiding her hair again, “He will. He has to. Josh is too much of an egomaniac to rob this world of such celebrity. And Patrick? Stop jiggling your leg.”
Speaking traits, nervous habits, addressing another character directly, the use of gender to differentiate between the three all helped to keep the players straight.
There was a device that I noticed author Jonathan Tropper employing in his latest book, which was to simply follow the quote with the attributed person’s name and a period, almost like a screenplay. I would use that technique sparingly but when there are three or more people engaged in fast repartee, it can be effective. Here is part of the same example above using Tropper’s approach:
“I just don’t know about all of this.” Stacie.
“What? Are you telling us that you want to back out?” Patrick.
“No, it just seems—I don’t know—a little underhanded.” Stacie
“She’th right. It’th all a bit untheemly.” Douglas.
“Unseemly or not we have got to do something.” Patrick.
“Yeth, I’ll give you that but there hath to be thomething elth we can conthider.” Douglas.
“I agree with Douglas, we can’t just kidnap Josh. He’s a public figure. We could get ourselves into some serious trouble.” Stacie.
I enjoy writing dialogue and I like to figure out different ways to keep it moving without an excessive number of tags while still making it clear who is speaking. There is nothing worse for a reader than to have to stop and reread a section because it is unclear who is saying what. These few approaches to dialogue are ones that I hope you will want to tuck away in your writer’s toolbox, but this is not an exhaustive post on the art of dialogue by any stretch of the imagination. Learn from your favorite authors by paying attention to how they tackle such a problem. Tag, your it…