As we’ve deepened our points of view (POVs) and heightened our ability to show instead of tell, we’ve waged a war on dialogue tags. He said and she said are victims in a battle where plain text is now treated as a waste of space.
But we still need those tags. Right?
Yes. But only occasionally and here’s why.
Dialogue tags started off as being invisible. You could have a purely audio conversation with few or no visuals to guide it, using only he said, she said, and the name-drop-in-dialogue to keep the reader straight with who’s saying what.
There were a few problems with this:
There were fewer visuals.
There were fewer scents, tastes, feels, etc.
The scene had one dimension: sound, so it was often times flat.
People don’t say names in real dialogue. They’re standing in front of the person they’re talking to, so why do they need to repeat their name over and over again? People say another person’s name to make a point or to get their attention, so the dialogue sounds immature.
However, those were usually easily fixed by adding a few senses through phrases attached to the dialogue tag, and the editor would delete most of the in-dialogue-names-drops only to discover the author had added them all back in for the finished product.
We had dialogue tags handled like a well-oiled tennis match. It wasn’t great, but it worked for us.
How Audiobooks Changed Dialogue Tags
Then audiobooks became an everyday thing.
Dialogue tags are no longer invisible. Now, they’re loud and annoying and can pull a listener out of the book, drop it, ask for a refund, and never come back again.
Audiobooks add one more layer to this epic battle on dialogue tags. The challenge before was to create a well-defined, non-whitewashed scene using all the senses. But on the written page, we could slip. We could focus on the dialogue, whitewash the room occasionally, and it’d be just fine.
In audio, once the visuals go away, there’s no longer a story. When we start telling the readers what they’re hearing when they’re already listening, they get frustrated. The narrators are already changing the pitch of each character’s voice, so the listener already knows who’s saying what.
Your listener doesn’t need dialogue tags because your narrator is giving her that information differently.
Even If You’re Not Going to Audio
So many of our readers now listen to audiobooks. Even readers who are technology-resistant have turned to audiobooks. They’ll get this look on their face like they’re confessing some big sin, but they enjoy the fact that they can listen to a story being told while they’re working in the garden, doing chores, organizing their closet from winter to summer, and doing other menial tasks. The freedom to enjoy while they’re slaving away at life is a pleasure they won’t soon give up.
But what if you’re not planning on taking your book to audio? I mean, it’s expensive, it’s difficult. If you get the wrong narrator, it can kill your entire series. There’s a lot of risk involved with going to audio.
It doesn’t matter. The reason for that is because people are so used to listening to books now, their brains are being trained to see the things that annoy them in their audiobook enjoyment. When you take the pleasure out of something that makes their lives more enjoyable like loud dialogue tags in an audiobook, your reader will start holding a grudge. They’ll remember some other author’s overuse of dialogue tags and how those dialogue tags gave them nothing in the way of adding more depth to the story and they will hold that against you.
Telling the Story Using the Senses… With Fewer Dialogue Tags
It all boils down to telling a good story. That’s it. The end. Have a lovely freakin’ day.
How much value does a dialogue tag add?
It quickly tells the reader who’s speaking.
It quickly moves information along.
It keeps the fast-moving dialogue from getting confusing.
It also is a red flag that:
Your characters lack unique dialogue voices.
Your scene, setting, or world has been reduced to a white room with a speaker in it.
You’re only using half of what makes dialogue a conversation: the audio.
Dialogue has a bunch of nuances that go above and beyond the words being said. If we’re only using words, we could basically send text messages, which is why a lot of us like dialogue tags. We prefer text messages. It’s a one-dimensional conversation.
Getting vocal cues – what’s the tone like? Are their words strained? Is their voice gravelly? – is like taking that text message to a phone conversation. You’re adding an element to the conversation and making it two-dimensional.
Adding visual cues – what’s their body language saying? What are their hands doing? What about their feet, their thumb, shoulder, elbow, knee? – is like taking that phone conversation to a video call. What you see is limited to what’s in the view screen, but it’s still more detailed, more real than a phone call or a text message. It’s the three-dimensional experience.
Adding the setting – how are they interacting with the couch as they move through the room while having this conversation? – is like having the conversation face-to-face. You’re smelling them. You’re physically interacting with them. You can feel what’s coming off of them. It’s the full four-dimensional experience.
Being forced to enter this new era of “no dialogue tags” (or just fewer of them) is frustrating for many reasons, number one of which is the fact that most of you have no intention of ever going to audiobook, and that’s fine.
However, you should still be focusing on telling a great story. All you have to ask yourself is if the scene you’re writing is a text message, a phone call, a video call, or an in-person visit. Most authors who do a good job at showing do so with more in-person scenes than text message, phone call, or video call dialogue scenes. So, turn those dialogue tags into something that adds more depth to your scene and tell a more rounded, fuller-dimensioned story.