Writing Stronger Dialogue Part 1: speech and action tags
Dialogue is my favourite thing to write in a novel. I love how it can improve a chapter’s pace and how effective it can be at expressing a character’s personality. When it’s done right, it can make even the simplest scene exciting.
Writing good dialogue is a challenge though, and there are lots of reasons for that:
How do you structure it clearly?
How do you ensure it sounds natural?
How do you distinguish each characters’ voice?
To answer these questions and more, I’m creating a series of posts around writing stronger dialogue in your stories.
Kicking the series off, we’re looking at tags. What are they? How should you use them? Why are they useful?
What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags are indicators you use to show the reader which character is speaking. They're important tools for every writer but they’re also a massive help to the reader. We’ve all read a conversation (probably from one of our early drafts) and completely lost track of who was saying what because there are four different characters arguing an issue at the same time.
Of course, if you have characters with very distinctive voices (more on this here) then you might get away with it, but never forget that you know your character’s better than any reader so what you consider distinctive might not stand out for them.
Enter dialogue tags. They come in two varieties: speech tags and action tags. Both serve the same purpose, but in very different ways.
How should you use speech tags?
A speech tag is your plain and simple he said / she said.
‘I’m going to the park,’ said Chris.
‘Great. I’ll join you,’ said Lisa.
Speech tags are probably what you’re most familiar with and what most writers use. They're simple, effective and do their job well. There’s no confusion in the above example about who is saying what, right?
The problem, however, is that they’re not really all that fun. In fact, if you have a long conversation happening, it can actually get a bit repetitive to read ‘said’ over and over again. You might think that the solution to that is to vary your usage to something like ‘whispered’, ‘shouted’, ‘bemoaned’ or ‘cried’ etc. This is fine, but in moderation. Strict moderation.
You see, a speech tag’s primary function is to say who is speaking, not how they’re speaking. The how should come from the dialogue itself. Take the following example:
'Don’t come in here,' said Richard. 'I just got the baby off to sleep.'
Now, we could have used ‘whispered’ here instead of ‘said’, but given that we know from the dialogue Richard is near a sleeping baby, we can infer that he didn’t raise his voice.
When a writer uses endless variations of the simple ‘said’, it actually draws more attention to the tag and away from the dialogue.
TL;DR – Speech tags are an excellent tool for indicating who is speaking, but don’t overuse them and, more importantly, don’t overuse any variations of them. ‘Said’ is popular for a reason, after all.
How should you use action tags?
Action tags work in much the same way as speech tags but they indicate the speaker by attaching their dialogue to an action instead. See the following example:
Chris picked up his coat. ‘I’m going to the park.’
Lisa closed the book she was reading and stood up. ‘Great. I’ll join you.’
Nowhere in this example did we use the word ‘said’ but it’s still crystal clear which characters spoke which lines. What’s more, we get to learn a little bit more about both of them.
Of course, as with speech tags, if you were to use this method over and over in a long conversation, it might also start to sound robotic and unnatural, but more often than not it will flow better than if you just use speech tags.
The tricky thing about action tags, however, is that they demand a good structure. The above example is easy to understand because both characters’ actions are on separate lines. They also have separate actions that follow on from each other. If you start to blur that, it can get very confusing:
Matty jumped down from the treehouse and Sarah squared up to him. ‘The last ice cream is mine. I claimed it first.’
It’s difficult to tell here who is claiming the last ice cream because both Matty and Sarah have an action preceding the speech. It’s confusing for the reader and when this happens, it will pull them out of the story.
TL;DR – Action tags are brilliant for indicating dialogue without having to use ‘said’, but you need a clear structure for them to make sense.
Mixing speech and action tags
In longer conversations, especially ones that involve more than two characters talking, the best route might be to use a mix of both types of tag to keep the rhythm unique and interesting.
‘Okay, what’s the plan?’ Danny asked.
Hannah sat forward and pointed to the map. ‘We meet here at midnight. You bring the camera, Luke brings the torches, and I’m bringing my dad’s wire cutters.’
‘Guys, I’m having second thoughts,’ said Luke, picking at a loose thread on his sleeve. ‘Maybe we should go in the daytime.’
Danny rolled his eyes. ‘Yeah, that’d make for a scary video. Visiting a haunted house in broad daylight. Spooky.’
From just this section alone, we have a clear understanding of the conversation, and we’ve learned a few things about the characters involved.
As with a lot of writing, the best way to figure out whether you’ve got it right is to read it out loud. It’s a sure-fire way to flag up any clunky phrases or repetition.