So last week you read my rant claiming the only dialogue tags you should frequently use is “said” and “asked.”
But that gets repetitive, doesn’t it?
Look, even if you got creative and started using tags like “chirped,” your dialogue might start sounding like a play with all of the he said, she said. Which is great, for a play, but not for a novel, short story, or any sized story in-between.
So I’m giving you a list of ways to eliminate tons of those tags and add variety to your dialogue.
1.) Beats: This is probably the most common way writers vary their dialogue, and there’s a good reason for that. A “beat” is when a description indicates who said what rather than a dialogue tag like “stated.” Some examples are:
• “Please, stay,” Erin touched his hand.
• “What do you mean!” Edward’s face turned red.
Obviously, this gives you countless ways to vary your dialogue’s structure and flow. These two examples are fairly simple, but you could use more complicated beats, or use them to sneak in bits of description. Not only that, but they help you follow the “show not tell” rule. With Erin’s example, I could have used “Erin said softly,” but “Erin touched his hand” not only conveys a more specific type of emotion, but it also shows her emotion rather than telling you how she feels. The same is true with Edward’s example. These are only the biggest two advantages beats have when used correctly.
While beats are a wonderful tool in the writer’s tool box, don’t overuse them. Too many beats can slow dialogue down or get nuanced by characters conveying the same emotion over and over again or repeating actions (I can’t tell you how many I’ve cut characters look up or down in my dialogue. It’s like, their eyes are always moving).
2.) Say My Name: This is a fairly straightforward way of indicating who someone is speaking too. Simply put, the character says another character’s name. In order for this to work, there can’t be many people in the scene or else who is speaking might become unclear. I wouldn’t advise using this one often though, as it often doesn’t sound natural. I mean, when’s the last time you phrased something like this: “I don’t really feel like it, Lizzy.” I’m guessing not often, so don’t use it in your dialogue often either.
3.) Strong Character Voice: This is probably the most difficult one to master. Any writer can edit “said” out and add beats instead if they put in the time. It also only takes a basic understanding of how people talk to use option #2 effectively, but this takes practice. Way #3 is having characters with such strong points of view and voice, that you don’t have to indicate who is speaking because the reader already knows. Not only does this way require strong character development and voice, but it also demands that you can convey those things through dialogue. This requires thoroughly understanding your characters; having characters that vary in speech patterns, vocabulary, and/or experiences; and seeing the world through the character’s lens (not your own) every time you make them speak. It’s difficult and something, I think, every writer works on.
Do you have any other ways to get around using dialogue tags? Have any tips on how to use the ways I listed that I left out? Please sound off below.