Hi, I’m Alisha, and I don’t like dialogue tags.
Aware that a great many readers and writers could give two shits about when, where, how often, and which dialogue tags are used, they rile me up. Plain and simple.
Let me show you why.
First, to clarify, dialogue tags are necessary. They keep us on track when characters have extended conversations. And if said or asked is used to do this, they essentially become invisible. No problem here. Use them to assign a speaker—sparingly.
Now, where I get to be a bit of an editing snob: if your readers can’t tell the difference between most of your characters when they speak, this means other issues need addressed. However, the below suggestions can help with that stage of revision, too.
Next, cut the fluffy, telling dialogue tags. The ones that say how someone speaks rather than earning the true emotion of the speaker. I’m talking about growled, mumbled, whispered, and hissing, etc. Side note, don’t have characters’ hiss without at least a few s-words. Yes, I’ve seen it, and yes, it’s infuriating. Or, god forbid, the use of adverbs to indicate these things, like he said wistfully or she said teasingly. Don’t. Just don’t.
The trick is to drop details between dialogue to nix these and develop scene, character, and tension.
Develop scene by scattering descriptions when a pause is needed. If you struggle setting scene, as I often have issue with, this is a great place for small details: a loud, neon pink duvet; the rubber frog stuck in an inner-tube on the bookshelf; a sun-bleached couch hidden in the tall grass. Be specific, use details that differentiate the scene or that reflect what the characters are thinking about.
This type of detailing helps slow down a tense scene where a lot of dialogue takes place. If you want the tension to grow, let the reader dwell on what’s said by providing sensory input that heightens the feel of the scene.
Also, to slow down and deepen tensions means providing internalization. We don’t simply talk and listen during a conversation. We digest and respond to the other person. Maybe your characters are on the same page, and their blood is pumping, their excited, and they’re thinking, Yes! Yes, finally someone who isn’t a moron. They get it. Thus, when they respond verbally with, “I absolutely agree,” you won’t need to dump why they agree into their conversation. It’s not needed. The reader feels the same.
But maybe, the characters are not in agreement with each other, and they’re trying to navigate unfriendly territory without slitting each other’s throats. Then amidst the conversation, your POV character might think to himself, This guy. How do they keep making this guy? All slick and shiny with his clichéd euphemisms and shoddy tan. Forget this, I won’t buy from him. All the while, the other guy is selling him a used car—persistent beyond normal pleasantries.
If you’ve met people that you connect with or dislike immediately, you know the emotion that comes with this, but readers should get a taste, too. Hence, internalizing. This doesn’t just mean thoughts. It means physical reactions, too. The heat of anger, the cold of fear, the frenzy of adrenaline, the gooeyness of love. Throw some of that in there, too. Steer clear of the clichés with personification or metaphor.
Finally, show a bit more character, beyond scene and internalization are other senses that we can appeal to, other details that we can drop. Build a character slowly through a conversation. First, notice the elaborate ring on the old man’s middle finger that seems to glow strangely when the sun hits it right. Then when he speaks of a long-gone lover, show how his dark eyes shine, glossy with a deep pain that crinkles when he looks away. Catch a whiff of his cologne, astringent with undertones of grease and cedar. Finally, the notch in his ear, twisting his lobe that you didn’t notice under the shadow of his hat until he leaned forward.
We don’t see everything about a person at once. If we did, life would be boring, and when we do it in writing, our stories grow boring. And don’t merely show us things. Make us feel them, taste them, and smell them.
Don’t be afraid to give your characters’ tics—picking at their nails, rubbing their hands together, tugging at their shirt hem—we all have tells for our emotions. The reader might not know exactly why a character keeps spinning their ring around their finger, but the writer should, and they should show it.
Let me know your tips and tricks for eliminating dialogue tags and world-building. Or disagree with me, I can take it.