Let me paint a scene for you. You’re curled up in your favorite reading nook. The main character of your book and her best friend are about to have a huge blow out (just for fun, let’s say because they both have been sleeping with each other’s husbands). You’re white knuckling your book as the tension builds. The first character, Marie spouts off an insult to the other girl, Suzie, which is quickly followed by a snide remark from Suzie. The two are verbally beating each other up. Five rounds of oral sparring later and you have no idea who’s talking anymore. You’re confused, you stop and rewind to the beginning of the diatribe to figure out who is saying what. Now the tension is gone, and you’re back to thinking about what you are going to cook for dinner. Total bummer.
Oh dialogue tags, those ever important indicators to the reader of who said what. Writing dialogue is no easy feat. Not only as writers do we have to make sure that our dialogue is believable and authentic, but we also have to find a way to add dialogue tags that aren’t obtrusive or repetitive to the reading experience. If the author of our cheating BFFS would have written “Suzie said” and “Marie yelled” after every statement the reader would have been just as annoyed as they were by not knowing who was saying what when. So, how do we balance the “he saids” and “she saids”?
I wish I had an easy answer for you. While doing research for this blog, I found a huge discrepancy among editors and writers. Some said avoid dialogue tags and attributes. They explained that the repetition would be distracting to the reader, so when you are writing dialogue use tags sparingly. While as a reader I can see how reading “he said”, “she said” over and over again would be annoying, I also think getting lost in the banter is just as bothersome. On the other side of the coin are the groups of editors who argue that you should use attributes after every piece of dialogue, so that the reader can follow along. I think that the use-sparingly editors have it right when they say too much of a good thing is still too much. So, how do we write dialogue that our readers are going to be able to follow along with?
Personally, I am a fan of the somewhere-in-the-middle philosophy. I don’t think that you need to include dialogue tags in every line of the discussion. I also don’t think you should leave them out altogether. As a reader who has gotten lost in many conversations, I think a little can go a long way. For me, when I write dialogue I always try and start the conversation with an attribute. I want the reader to know without a doubt who started the conversation. Then I try to add a tag every four statements, or so. It’s not a hard rule, as I am a fan of beats in dialogue and like to use them to show gestures that are unique to individual characters, which I hope keeps the discussion clear for the reader.
I think the key to making sure your dialogue clear is to keep it simple. Readers will glance over the term “said” without a second thought, so don’t be afraid to use that simple word to help keep your readers on the same page as you. Help your readers by keeping what Suzie or Marie said as clear and easy to follow as possible.
Do you have a trick you use to when deciding when to use dialogue tags?