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Writing Without Dialogue Tags: Don’t Knock It ‘Til You Try It

For today’s writing-related Challenge of the Week, as posted on Innovative Editing’s Facebook page, let’s get creative with dialogue tags – by not using them at all.

If you only just learned about them on Monday, you might be wondering why in the world I would ever suggest such a thing. After all, dialogue tags are so versatile and useful and awesome and… and… and how can you even write dialogue without them?

Well, first off, breathe. Inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Exhale.

Got it? Good. Now here’s the explanation.

You see, there’s a war within the writing community – really more like a catfight, I suppose – and it’s between the #iheartdialoguetags side and the #ihatedialoguetags faction.

The Pro-Dialogue Tags group says that dialogue tags are useful and clear, whereas the Anti-Dialogue Tags side claims they’re lazy: that real writers don’t need them.

So while a Pro-Dialogue Tagger might write: “Take that,” she snapped at him…

The creative writing opposition would change it to: She glared at him. “Take that!”

See the difference? One uses a speech-related verb to describe the character’s attitude, while the second uses an action-related verb.

For my part in this debate, I’m one of those obnoxious hippie types who says stuff like, “It’s all good, man,” and “Find your own inner dialogue tags truth” while wearing peace signs around her neck and brightly colored bell bottoms.

I can see both sides and how they go overboard. That’s why I like using this creative writing tool or not using it depending on the scene and what I’m trying to convey.

But I also acknowledge that every writer needs to make up his or her own mind here, so I’m not going to push my opinion on you, regardless of which side you happen to fall on. I’m just going to encourage you to try writing one page of your story without any dialogue tags (or, if you’re a hard-core anti tagger, then try writing one page with them).

If you hate it, you can go back and change all your verb relations and positions to the way you prefer. This challenge isn’t meant to change your mind, only to give you a different perspective on how to set a scene.

And just to show you that you can, in fact, write just as effectively without dialogue tags as with them, here’s the example I always give to my CCBC students on the subject. It’s a short excerpt from the first chapter of my thriller, The Politician’s Pawn, that just happens to work perfectly for a demonstration like this.

Now, there is one dialogue tag in there for kicks and giggles. Let’s see if you can find it.

Dialogue Example

The man in the ski mask regarded her carefully. Thanks to the third hole in the fabric, she could see his mouth was set firmly but not too tense. And if his blue eyes were any indication, he was nothing short of calm, his breathing barely accelerated. “You’re not going to scream, right?” Kayla didn’t shake her head. She didn’t move at all other than the faintest motion of her lips. “No.” It was excruciatingly difficult to get that single syllable out past her throat, and she could barely hear her own voice past the pounding of blood in her ears. “And you’re not going to fight and make this more difficult than it has to be, right?” She hadn’t thought it possible, but the question took her terror to a whole new level. “What do you mean by ‘this?’” “Following me outside. Coming along quietly. And doing as I say.” Someone outside her kitchen window interrupted before she could speak, which was a small mercy since she had no idea how to reply. It was hard to think straight past the all-consuming panic coursing through her system. “Everything okay?” Tense though the newcomer sounded, his wasn’t the voice of a savior. He didn’t sound surprised at all, just impatiently cautious. Not so much the man with the gun to her skin. “Everything’s fine. She just wants a guarantee.” That didn’t seem to sit well with his compatriot. “Can’t we give her that in the car?” Blue Eyes shot a single look over his shoulder, and the conversation stopped like that. It was further proof of what Kayla had already determined: that the man towering over her was comfortable with every aspect of being in charge. If so, that made it yet another factor decidedly not in her favor. If not for the weapon under her chin, she thought her legs might give out altogether. He turned his full attention back to her. “I don’t want to hurt you, and I won’t have to if you cooperate.” She swallowed hard, the action doing nothing to calm her down. Being inside her apartment with him was terrifying enough. But the thought of leaving with him was even more disturbing. There was nothing in her that wanted to agree. Unfortunately, there was nothing about him that indicated she had a say in the matter. Whether she went meekly, kicking and screaming, or unconscious over his shoulder, Kayla was overwhelmingly certain he was going to win in the end. He was going to win and she was going to lose. Miserably. Her head still craned upward against the gun, she choked on a sob. He made it obvious he was waiting for an answer. “You really don’t have a choice, Lucy.” The name, which clearly wasn’t her own, registered only briefly on Kayla’s subconscious as a possible slang term she wasn’t familiar with. There was too much going on that demanded her immediate attention to focus on such trivialities. “You have three seconds to decide,” he warned, his bright blue eyes searching her brown ones without a hint of mischief, only unyielding calculation. Three seconds was an unacceptable amount of time to set when presenting such a life-changing decision. It was inhumanly cruel. And while she already knew what her answer was going to be – what it had to be – she still didn’t want to say it aloud. He cocked his head to the side in question. “One more second. Then I’m going to decide for you.” Kayla let her lashes sweep downward, swallowing back her emotional horror and physical bile. “Okay.” The gun left her chin to dangle at his side. “Good. Let’s go.”

Editor’s Note: Want to read more? Curious what happens to Kayla and her blue-eyed abductor? Just click here.

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