Simplify dialogue tags

The way writers tag dialog is often evidence of how experienced they are. New writers frequently make dialog tags more complicated than they need to me. The classic example is the flagrant use of “said bookisms,” those awkward constructions reminiscent of Tom Swift.

“I love Old Faithful,” she gushed.

Such constructions are usually misguided attempts to avoid repeated use of “said.” The worst I’ve ever seen in a published book:

“Hello,” she greeted.

That line would never have survived a Word Weavers critique group meeting.

Descriptive taglines are sometimes helpful, but if you’re going to use one, make sure you’re using a word that really describes talking sounds. Muttered, grumbled, whispered, and whined are good examples. Observed, pontificated, and announced are bad examples, because the act of speaking itself constitutes the announcement. Announced doesn’t describe the mode of speaking.

Adverbs are controversial, and many writing instructors will tell you not to use them at all. I’m not one to take a tool out of a writer’s hand. Just make sure you’re using it appropriately.

Instead of using a plain verb and an adverb, look for one strong verb.

“Shut up,” he said quietly.
versus
“Shut up,” he mumbled.

Wordy constructions are also found in unpolished writing. Consider these comparisons:

“I don’t know,” she said as she shrugged her shoulders.
versus
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”

(That one includes a bonus. Can one shrug anything but one’s shoulders?)

He looked up from his microscope and then asked, “What do you mean?”
versus
He looked up from his microscope. “What do you mean?”

Which isn’t to say that “asked” is an inappropriate tag. But if there’s an action, you don’t need the tag also.

Replacing said bookisms, adverbial phrases, and constructions like “he said as he…” with action beats, interior monologue, or description will streamline your prose, making your stories read more smoothly.

About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

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