Okay, you’re not, but you better be on your game when it comes to dialogue tags.
I’ve just put down a great book simply because I got stopped by the writer. No, they didn’t call me. Or email me. Or text or tweet me.
Their writing stopped me.
I’ve been writing for about six years now and I’m still learning about dialogue tags. Yes. Still. Learning. (Tags should be a required college course, I reckon).
I’m only going to touch the very tip-top of the iceberg with tags in this post.
Said is a tag.
Laughed is not.
Yelled is a tag (not a very good one, especially yelled with an exclamation point; dialogue itself should carry the “tone of voice” of the character).
Chuckled is definitely not a tag (Have you tried chuckling your words? I can’t. And if you can, I’d love to hear it).
Dialogue tags sound simple. They’re such a small part of the novel/memoir, but tags, when done correctly should be invisible. And I’m not talking about invisible on the page, but you shouldn’t really see them, in fact your eyes should skim over them and on to the real flesh of the story.
If there’s one thing that stops me in my tracks while reading it’s hearing the writer. I know you know what I mean: you’re speeding through a book with a great plot and then, completely out of character, the character hums words.
Wait! What? She hummed the dialogue? I’m confused. Aren’t your lips pursed and touching when you hum? Mmmm, mm-mm, mmm, mmmm. A synonym for hum is vibrate. Can you vibrate your dialogue? Goodness, I hope not. (Or maybe, if you can, I should be saying, I’ll have what s/he’s having).
But just like that—with one tag—the author lost me. I’m trying to hum words instead of reading their book. They might have changed it to “sang” and I’d be less inclined to stop. It sounds a little better, but like I said above, dialogue should carry the tone of the character. We should be able to hear the dialogue in our own heads by the way it is written, not by the way the writer is telling us how it is being “said.”
Also, using replied, purred, chastised, or anything that remotely sounds like Dickens-era writing—or a cute kitten—should have a big red line through them as well. The following is a really poorly written example: “I really don’t know what you think I did that is so wrong,” Madeline replied, shrugging.
To make it stronger, I would drop ‘replied’ since we know she’s speaking in response to someone else’s question/statement, and have it read: “I really don’t know what you think I did wrong.” Madeline shrugged.
Stronger, huh? Do you miss replied? Didn’t think so.
Dialogue shmilogue, you might be thinking, it’s the story that is important! But I’ve read published books—NYT bestsellers—with incorrect dialogue tags. That is scary. Where were their editors?