dialogue tags

Question: How do I make my dialogue tags less repetitive? For example, if I were to express the same emotion throughout many scenes and run out of dialogue tags, is there a way I can use dialogue tags without making the reader notice that it appears too many times?


Answer: Don't worry about using a variety of verbs in speech tags.

Truth is, "said" is almost always the best verb to use in a dialogue tag. English teachers may disagree, but they're not writers. The great thing about the verb "said" is that it doesn't call attention to itself. Most people skim right past it, which means their attention goes straight to what the characters are saying, which is the interesting part.

I know it seems boring and repetitive to keep typing the word "said" in tag after tag. But that's because you're the writer. You have to pay attention to each word you type. When people read, the "saids" don't feel boring because, as I say, people pay very little attention to them.

Using verbs other than "said" in a dialogue tag can be distracting. It takes attention away from the characters' voices, and can be a little redundant. All you want the tag to do is let the reader know who is saying what. Then let the readers "listen" to what the characters are saying, which is the
interesting and important part.

As for conveying emotion, if your dialogue is good, the reader should be able to tell the emotional state of the character by the words they say, without any help from the tag. If they can't, you need to spend more time improving your dialogue and your sense of the characters' voices.

Even if you're characters are in a similar emotional state in different scenes, they will never use the same words twice. The situation and other characters states will always be different, which means there will be plenty of nuances to everyone's speech.

Remember too that every good scene is about a change -- either external or a change in someone's attitude or in a relationship. That's what makes scenes interesting. So let the reader watch this process of change through the dialogue.

All that said, sometimes it's okay to use other verbs in a dialogue tag, if they convey some meaning that doesn't come across in the dialogue itself and you can't figure out a way to re-write the dialogue so it does come across. Sarcasm, for example, is sometimes harder to convey in dialogue, especially when it's subtle. But use other verbs sparingly.

In fact, you should look for opportunities to reduce the number of tags altogether. Use them when you need to make clear who is saying what, but no more often than that.

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