Monday, August 8, 2011

Replacing Dialogue Tags: How to Identify Character Speech

In my last post I talked about dialogue tags and the overuse of them. Today I want to share with you a few techniques you can use to identify which character is speaking without the use of dialogue tags.

“Because dialogue is a form of action, we can use the physical to assist the verbal. This is called the action tag." James Scott Bell, in Writer’s Digest (June 2003).

If a character is doing something, and in that same paragraph he speaks, there is no confusion as to who is speaking. An action attribution is very simple to use (and is actually an easy way to replace your existing dialogue tags).  Look at this example:
“You okay?” I hear over the blaring TV in the living room. I leave my dirty shoes by the front door when Mara meets me in the hall. She’s looking at me the same as Mom sometimes does. Squinting hard like she’s trying to see my answer before I say it.

“Why would I not be?” I guess this’d be the part I hate most. Pretending I have an idea what my little sister’s talking about.

Her lip catches on her braces. “’Cause of the fight.”

“Fight?” The word slips. Does she mean with Shane? She can’t. In six months, Shane and I haven’t ever fought. Not once.

Now this scene began as a simple four lines of dialogue:

“You okay? Mara asks as she meets me at the door.
“Why would I not be?”  I say back.

“’Cause of the fight.”

“Fight?” I question.

But one of my biggest pet peeves is reading a scene where two characters just stand and talk to each other with movements like raising their eyebrows or folding their arms. I like to think beyond the facial and extremity gestures. (That’s not saying I don’t ever include such actions. I do. Occasionally.)

When it’s perfectly clear from the surrounding context who is speaking the dialogue, there’s no need to use another tool to identify the speaker. Many times during a discussion, your characters will lean one way or another toward the “issue.” This may be a time when context of the speaker’s words can be the identifier alone.

Ever read a scene where the characters address each other by name over and over?

"Lisa, I'm heading back to town."
"Okay, Ryan, I'll catch up to you after work."

"Be careful, Lisa. The roads are still wet."

While this can be an effective technique to let the reader know who’s speaking without the use of a dialogue tag, it can also be very off-putting (because REAL people don’t talk like that). This should be used sparsely.

Basically there are three times when people call each other by name in real life:
(1) when we meet each other somewhere

(2) when we’re really angry
(3) in the throes of great passion

As with all of these, don’t get carried away with a single technique. A beat after every line of dialogue would be just as distracting for your reader as omitting character acknowledgement altogether resulting in the talking head syndrome. It’s about balance and finding what’s right for each line of dialogue so they work together to form a scene with appropriate rhythm and pace. And don’t be afraid to get creative when writing a scene with dialogue. A small detail about the setting or a bit of introspection can add a great deal of depth.

Happy Writing!


  1. I agree that your characters should, for the most part, always be doing something rather than just sitting or standing there, but I think removing so many dialogue tags can get confusing for a reader. It's true that "said" is the invisible word. Too much physical action replacing dialogue tags can result in a lot of physical cliches, which is something many new writers struggle with. I would encourage writers to stick to "said" as much as possible until they've dropped the habit of using physical cliches like rolling eyes, stomachs churning, hearts pounding, eyebrows raised, etc.

    Agent Mary Kole has a great post on this.

  2. Thanks for your input T.S. Walti, and for the link. I remember that post well.

    Physical cliches can be very distracting. I recently read a book (Harper Teen 2011) that was so full of "body part" action or action tags that I actually stopped reading (something I rarely do).

    This is a series of posts I'm doing and my next will touch on using things like introspection to identify character speech.

  3. I love that you pointed out the problem with use of proper names. One other exception (depending on a character's personality) is nicknames. Some people refer to another person's nickname all the time.

    Great post!