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Dianne Salerni : Writer of Teen and Middle Grade Fiction | Dialogue Tags and Door Hinges

Dialogue Tags and Door Hinges

I was recently part of a (heated) online discussion about dialogue tags. I am going to leave out all names and even the name of the discussion forum, but it boils down to this:

Writer A asked Writer B to give feedback on her work. Writer B’s feedback suggested that Writer A had used too large a variety of dialogue tags and that professional authors only used said, replied, and asked. In particular, Writer B said that any agent would identify Writer A as an amateur by her use of breathed as a dialogue tag. “Dialogue tags should be like door hinges,” said Writer B. “They should do their job and be invisible to the reader.” According to this self-appointed authority, readers ignore said, replied, and asked, but their attention is drawn to screeched, gasped, and the dreaded breathed – thus pulling them out of the story.

As you can imagine, discussion on this forum exploded, and it wasn’t pretty. The definition of breathed was debated. (One definition is to speak in a breathy voice, btw.) Door hinges were debated – attractive and decorative door hinges are often desirable and add style to a room.

I watched the verbs fly from a safe distance for awhile, and then I decided to do a little research of my own. I went to my own bookcases and pulled three books off the shelves at random. (I closed my eyes, I swear.) Then I opened the book to pages that contained dialogue and started up a tally sheet.

Within 3 pages of Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke, I found the following tags: continued, declared, whispered, exclaimed, interrupted, and screeched. I found only a single said in those pages.

Within 3 pages of The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory, I found said used extensively, but also: whispered, returned, improvised, counseled, and smiled. The exact quote on that one is “That’s all right,” he smiled. (In my opinion, smiling is not a proper speech tag, Philippa!)

The one author who used said the most was JK Rowling in The Order of the Phoenix. Still, she modified them with adverbs: said grimly, said angrily, said stiffly. (Aren’t adverbs supposed to be another big no-no?) Occasionally she did use other words: screamed, called, bellowed.

As a reader, do you notice the door hinges … er, dialogue tags? Would you prefer that every single one be either said, asked, or replied? As a writer, what is your style?

Personally, I leave off the dialogue tag when I can – when it’s absolutely obvious who is speaking. But when I use them, I prefer to choose one that precisely describes the type of speech. And I cannot bear to use any speech tag twice in a row – or even on a page, if I can help it.

What about you?

15 Responses to Dialogue Tags and Door Hinges

  1. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  2. Thanks for this post. I wondered about this and it’s been driving me nuts. I think I’m going to do the same thing and pull out random books–check the tags. THe adverb thing too. I really think all these invisible rules are set to drive us crazy.

  3. Candyland says:

    Oy. Hmm, I think the tags are fine and add a little somethin’ somethin’ to the sentence, as long as they’re not overused/abused.

  4. I think variety in tags is fine as long as they aren’t abused. For the majority of the time (if a tag is really necessary), said is perfect.

    J.K. Rowling definitely abuses the adverbs. It started to drive me nuts!

  5. Sun Singer says:

    I try to stick with “said,” and otherwise avoid using tags at all.


  6. Marva says:

    In order of my own preferences:

    If I can use an action by the speaker, then I skip any dialogue tag (well, mostly, so sue me).

    I’ve been beaten into submission on adverbs, but use one occasionally as a sign of defiance.

    When there’s no way around it, I use said, replied, asked.

  7. JEM says:

    OMG I am so glad you wrote about this one because this is a piece of writing advice that has stuck in my craw (if you’ll allow the Southern phrasing). I disagree with the “no adverbs” and “no dialogue tags” rules, and not just as a writer. I’ve done the same exercise where I’ve gone through really well written books that I greatly enjoyed, and they are full of them. I think the advice started from a good place – don’t overdo it – but it’s now become a way of stripping out any variance in writing. A really good writer – and I’m not claiming this for myself, although I hope to get there some day – knows how to balance their word choice for maximum effect.
    Phew! Okay, off my soap box now :). Thanks for the great topic!

  8. salarsenッ says:

    OMGosh, I just love this post, Dianne. I just read an article about this the other day. I’ve also had different critique partners give me different advice on this. With me being newer to the writing game, I’ve been confused. One said not to use said, while the other mentioned it was okay but followed up with some action. Ugg. Thanks for this. Telly me…what forum. I’d like to read their reasonings…well, if there were any valid ones. I’m twitting this.

  9. Yes, I use them! I even *gasp* use the dreaded adverb on occasion. But mostly “said” unless I need to get across the way something was said that would otherwise not have been obvious.

  10. mshatch says:

    what an interesting discussion. I use ‘said’ the majority of the time because that’s what I was taught – but I also use other tags to break it up a bit, example in my last bit of dialogue there were 15 ‘said’ 3 ‘ask’ one ‘demanded’ one ‘protested’ and one ‘answered’ as well a number of tagless lines. My final answer? It’s whatever works and reads best.

  11. Personally, too many ‘saids’ drive me insane- I am one reader who still notices them.

    To me tags are like spice or sugar in a recipe. Just the right amount adds a lot. Too much= epic fail. It’s a delicate balance, and I too try to go without them where I can. The more I write, the more it becomes that way.


  12. Thanks for weighing in on the dialogue issue — it seems clear to me that how an author handles dialogue tags is part of his/her unique style. And thank heavens we all have our own style of writing; otherwise reading would be very dull indeed!

  13. MarySimonsen says:

    I try to use dialog tags as little as possible, but my copy editor put a lot of them back in. I also try to mix it up b/c I get tired of using “said” all the time. But I do avoid overly emotional tags, such as “gasped.” I do believe it is the writer’s preference. No big deal.

  14. I try to avoid Tom Swifties. Having been found guilty of boring dialog tags and poor positioning, I am trying to improve. Probably will need more guidance. He muttered, guiltily

  15. I used to think variety in dialogue tags was important (even in minutes). But I’ve since realized how invisible the word “said” can be. But even it can be overused. I’ve also come to see how useful dialogue beats can be to shake things up, so you don’t have to overuse “said.”