“Dialogue tags receive a lot of approbation, almost as much as adverbs, and for similar reasons. Like adverbs, dialogue tags are accused of slowing the action, spoiling the tension, telling instead of showing, and interrupting the story’s flow for the reader. They are therefore viewed by many in the writing community as a necessary evil, one to be minimized, concealed, and avoided whenever possible. Employed with skill and discretion, however, I assert that dialogue tags are a powerful and under-utilized tool for characterization, narration, and storytelling.
“If you’ve read my writing, like me Blood Magic series, then you’ll have noticed that my dialogue is almost always tagged, and not just with the ‘he said’ or ‘she asked’ tags often considered ‘invisible’ to readers. My characters grumble, mutter, murmur, grouse, groan, complain, explain, proselytize, preach, command, declare, exclaim, inquire, probe, prod, prompt, explicate, curse, inveigh…you get the idea. Nor do I limit myself to monolithic tags; my dialogue is frequently accompanied by snippets of narration, character actions, and even setting descriptions.
“Some of my motivation for structuring my writing this way is, admittedly, because I would be disappointed to miss out on the opportunity to invoke an entire subset of the English language, but more importantly, I maintain that well-written dialogue tags need not detract from writing in the ways that many authors hold: quite the opposite. Far from being distracting, I think my dialogue tags make my writing more immersive, and help guide the reader through a scene. Without such grounding provided by tags, even I as the writer can forget what’s happening around my characters while they’re engaged in conversation. Plus, I can keep advancing multiple story fronts, instead of just what the dialogue is driving.
“It’s true that the impact of ‘special’ dialogue tags can be reduced by overuse, but with such a wide array of words available, I rarely struggle to avoid repeating my tags in proximity. With each verb providing different meaning and nuance, I can convey far more specific information and detailed characterization than I could without these tools. Doil, for instance, might inquire, while Kiluron will ask unless he’s being sarcastic. Also key is structural variation in the employ of tags. If all the dialogue in a story is structures as ‘talk talk talk,’ he said, then no matter what tags you use or don’t use, your dialogue will be tedious to read. Instead, I try to change whether my tags are in front, in the middle, or after the dialogue, along with how they connect to the quotation in question. Sometimes, I use entirely separate sentences and phrases that serve as ‘implicit’ dialogue tags.
“Of all the critiques of dialogue tags, I consider the most legitimate to be that their use can foster laziness in the development of distinctive character voices. Ideally, an attentive reader should be able to distinguish between which character is speaking, even in a rapid, multi-party conversation (which I like to call a polylogue), based solely on the characters’ respective speech patterns and diction. This does not mean accents and weird dialects; rather, it refers to little, subtle traits, like an educated character employing longer words, more complex sentence structures, and proper grammar compared to a less educated character, or characters from different places using metaphors unique to their backgrounds or making references to their particular pasts. These techniques, and the characterization they enable, are essential, challenging, and the need for them is somewhat obviated by the use of dialogue tags. This is an area of my own writing that I most need to improve, and perhaps my progress would be faster if I did not have a dialogue tag technique upon which to fall back.
“Like the oft-maligned adverb, the dialogue tag is a tool, and a uniquely useful one if employed with skill and discretion, underserving of the absolutist doctrines espoused against it. While dialogue tags should not be used as a crutch for poor writing, their employ is not indicative of bad writing; rather, the dialogue tag should be treated as another tool in the author’s toolbox, and a matter for authorial stylistic decision,” I said.