One of the most difficult things about writing dialogue isn’t just what to say, but how to let your readers know who’s talking. Dialogue tags–added phrases such as “he said” or “she asked”–can be useful, but they grow monotonous and boring when an author never varies them.
There are only so many times you can write “he,” “she,” or a character’s name in a dialogue tag.
Now, I can’t claim to be a master of the creative dialogue tag–and I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to be so creative that something as mundane as a dialogue tag draws attention away from the substance of the dialogue.
That’s the trick: you want something that isn’t your character’s name used over and over, and yet something that will read so smoothly it’s barely noticeable. Dialogue tags are not what you want to stand out in your writing.
That said, I’ve found there are ways to vary how you refer to the character who’s talking. You definitely have more solid and normal-sounding options than just a name or pronoun. When you’re struggling to vary your references in tags, consider using:
- PROFESSION/RANK. You know: “the baker.” “The teacher.” “The captain.” I write sword and sorcery fantasy, so I can sometimes lean on “the prince,” “the king,” “the sorceress,” or “the guardsman.”
- HAIR COLOR OR OTHER PROMINENT PHYSICAL TRAIT. In “The Crimson League,” I definitely refer to two characters, from time to time, as “the blonde” and “the redhead.” This can be particularly effective before your reader knows a character’s name; then he or she can be “the tall man” or “the bald man” or “the plump woman.”
- A BIT OF CLOTHING. A number of us, from childhood, can remember Curious George’s friend “The man with the yellow hat.” Clothing is another good way to reference a nameless character (such as the man with the yellow hat.)
- RELATIONSHIP TO THE NARRATOR OR POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER. Suppose Karen is your point of view character in a third person narration. Then you could refer to people as “Karen’s mother” or “Karen’s boss.” Other people might be tagged by relationship to someone important to Karen. For instance, if Karen is dating Jason, certain characters might be tagged “Jason’s sister,” “Jason’s mother,” or “Jason’s colleague” every now and then instead of by name.
- SPECIES OR RACE (IN SCI-FI/FANTASY). The cyborg. The dwarf. The elf. The dragon. The troll. The Time Lord (Allons-y!)
- AGE. If it makes sense given your narrator, you could totally tag somebody as “the child,” “the boy,” the girl,” or conversely, “the old man.”
Which leads me to one last precautionary point:
BE CAREFUL TAGGING BY EMOTION
There is a difference between tagging “the old man” and “the angry man.” Between “the young woman” and “the frightened woman.”
You don’t need to tag by emotion because it’s redundant.
Whatever your characters are saying should make clear that he is angry, or that she is frightened. That should come out in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.
Maybe the angry man is cursing while making his point. Maybe he’s pounding a table while he’s yelling.
Maybe the frightened woman’s voice is cracking, or she’s speaking in fragments because she can’t think clearly enough to form a complete sentence. Maybe she’s repeating herself a bit.
Whatever the case, the dialogue itself makes clear what your characters are feeling, along with their physical reactions to the situation. NOT a dialogue tag.
My guess is that for a lot of people, there’s nothing new in this post. Still, I hope it works as a reminder and maybe a reference for when you’re struggling to figure out how to tag something.
(And remember: you never need to tag every piece of dialogue.)
What are your favorite ways to tag? Do tags bother you, so you use them in any form as little as possible? Feel free to share your thoughts.
If an interest in or problems with dialogue brought you here today, you might find my other posts on dialogue helpful. (They’re grouped here for easy reference).
And don’t forget you can sign up to follow my blog by email…. Just sign up at top right of the page, and you’ll never miss another post!