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Dialogue Tags: Not Just What He Said but How He Said It

Today’s writing Definition of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, is “Dialogue Tag.”

You know how, last week, I wrote how “dialogue” was also known as a major inducer of headaches for many creative writers? Well, “dialogue tag” is also known as a major inducer of catfights.

But once again, we’ll get into that later – on Thursday, to be precise. For now, suffice it to say that:

A dialogue tag is a speech-related action verb that’s attached to a line of dialogue. It’s perhaps best explained through examples, so here you go:

“There’s nothing here,” he said.

“Follow the road further up, you idiot,” she sighed.

“Stop calling me an idiot!” he snapped.

"Said," "sighed" and "snapped" are all dialogue tags: descriptions of how characters say what they say. And there are countless more where those come from.

For example, a character can giggle something or laugh it or chortle it. She can sneer or snarl or snip, just like he can exclaim, yelp, shout or holler.

Here are just a few more if you’re still struggling to grasp exactly what a dialogue tag is:

Acknowledged Interrupted Questioned Begged Joked Raged Croaked Keened Sobbed Demanded Lauded Thundered Expressed Muttered Undermined Fumed Nagged Vented Groaned Oscillated Whined Hissed Preened Yipped

Sorry, but I couldn’t come up with anything for X or Z, try though I did. If you’re going for a little alliteration with either of those letters, then you’re on your own this time around.

But that failing aside, these kinds of verbs are associated with dialogue because dialogue is so much more than mere words. As I also stated last week – right after I said that dialogue could be a headache – it’s not just about what your characters say but also how they say it and why they’re saying it.

To quote that post exactly, “It’s an extension of who your characters are: their ages, genders, nationalities, socioeconomic statuses, occupations, world views, upbringings and personalities, not to mention their permanent and temporary environments.”

So if a character from the American Midwest wants to laugh, she might guffaw or hoot. A villain from anywhere in the world might chortle or cackle or snigger. And a lady from London a hundred years ago could very well titter.

Or let’s say that your characters are aggravated. You can make that crystal clear without saying “My characters are aggravated.” Try out something like this bit of dialogue instead, dialogue tags and all:

“It’s the blue one!” she screeched. “The blue one! I told you that fifteen times already.” “I know it’s the blue one,” he retorted. “I heard you before. I’m just moving the red one first to get it out of the way.”

Reading over that writing snippet, you can easily tell how She and He aren’t happy. It’s utterly obvious, you might think, in which case you’d be right. But believe it or not, it’s obvious because of the dialogue tags alone. Change those two simple verbs, and it could paint the whole entire scene in a much different light.

Let’s say you wanted to make it a more lighthearted moment. In that case, you could keep the same exact lines of actual dialogue while just changing the dialogue tags:

“It’s the blue one!” She laughed. “The blue one! I told you that fifteen times already.” “I know it’s the blue one,” he assured. “I heard you before. I’m just moving the red one first to get it out of the way.”

And all of a sudden, you have a much happier couple on your hands – just one more magical writing moment made possible by a simple little dialogue tags trick.

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