Unconventional Dialogue Tags

Like any industry out there, the world of writing has several rules–and several “rules” as well–that we’re expected to follow if we want our intended audience to know what we’re doing.

I won’t go over these rules as any kind of professional but as an amateur, as someone who is still trying to learn them well enough to use them…. and to know when it’s appropriate to break them. As such, this post is meant to be taken as my personal opinion on those rules.

One such “rule” is the subject of dialogue tags: he said, she said, and the many ways to avoid using the word “said” all the time.

One of those “rules” is that the word “said” is an invisible word… that replacing it with something else purely for the sake of variety can actually be more distracting than simply using “he said, she said.”
Well, I have to say that isn’t entirely true. No, I do not think you should pepper your writing with other tags purely for variety, but relying on “said” all the time can be distracting, as well.

There are plenty of ways to get around this. Some of these methods are good, some…. not so much. Try them out for yourself and see what works for you.

One solution is to use action tags in place of dialogue tags.

Rip nodded. “Mr. Snart….” (etc.)

or

“You got not arguments there.” Sara approached another display case and caressed the recurve bow resting within. “But I think I’ll borrow this one.”

At their most basic, dialogue tags are intended to identify the speaker; if the speaker is performing a certain action within the same paragraph in which they speak, you have that requirement covered without any dialogue tag at all.

But please, make sure you have the speaker performing an action in the same paragraph, not someone else entirely. Do not make person A perform an action and person B say something in one paragraph and then switch to another paragraph to give person B’s action.
Do not, for instance, do this:

“Mr. Snart….” (etc) Leonard reached out for the rifle.

or the reverse. In that example it’s obvious that Len is not the one speaking (assuming he hasn’t started talking about himself in the third person 😉 ) but that doesn’t excuse this particular issue. Seriously, people, quit it!

Another option is to use dialogue tags other than “said.” Whispered, shouted, muttered, asked, replied and so on…. these are all perfectly normal tags that you can use, but they should still be used sparingly and only if they accurately represent how the person is talking.

And then there is the debate over words that are commonly used as dialogue tags but many an “expert” will claim are not dialogue tags at all!

“You got something to say,” Mick snarled, “then say it.”

or

“I would never risk losing something so valuable,” Leonard breathed.

And plenty of others I can’t be bothered to list.

The rationale behind eliminating these as dialogue tags is that they are, supposedly, actions the speaker performs in addition to speaking, not substitutes for “said” at all. (Also because it’s supposedly it is impossible to perform these actions while talking and I have to say that’s not true at all.)

Personally, I’ll agree to disagree. Grammatically that rule may well be correct; these tags are not synonyms for “said” and should never be used as common substitutes. But they are actions that affect how the dialogue sounds. Unlike admiring that recurve bow, these actions influence the speaker’s tone of voice.
In the above examples, Mick isn’t snarling and speaking as two separate actions… the fact that he snarled while talking completely changes how the comment sounds. And Len’s show of reverence for the value of the item he’s being offered requires a different tone of voice than, say, whispering the same statement, or being out of breath, or his usual drawl, or making the statement as if it was the most obvious thing in the world and why is he even wasting his breath explaining something that Rip should already know about him.

What do you think, my readers? What tags do you tend to use? Which do you prefer to avoid? And what are your personal likes and dislikes when you see another author’s tags of choice?

Characters in the examples are copyright to DC, CW, etc; dialogue examples are modified from one of my own Legends of Tomorrow fanfics-in-progress, “What If” from the (not completed at the time of this posting) Necropolis chapter.

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