Dialogue Tags and Other Irritations

I’m sure most writers work hard at their craft, constantly finding ways to improve their writing, to make their work better, more appealing, and more fun to read. From my very first novel – a children’s adventure titled The Devil’s Porridge Gang – I did my best to make the novel like one I would enjoy reading myself. To that end, I spent a lot of time reading the text aloud, trying to weed out those words and phrases that sounded odd, clunky or just didn’t sit right. Even so, there are still phrases in that book I’m not entirely happy with and will no doubt be expunged the next time I get around to re-reading it. And what is it I object to most? Dialogue Tags. This exchange, between Sam and Uncle Norman, for instance:

‘No,’ Sam shook his head sadly. ‘Dad said it was too late for us to be up.’

‘Aw, that’s a shame – it was great!’ enthused Norman.

If I were writing this now, I wouldn’t use the words sadly and enthused, as there are much better ways to show how characters say things. And of course, I’d take out the exclamation mark.

While this illustrates what I mean, it’s pretty tame compared to examples I’ve seen by other writers. Patricia Cornwell is one of my favourite authors. She’s a brilliant storyteller, but her dialogue tags are sometimes unwieldy. Here’s some examples from book 2 in the Scarpetta series, ‘Body of Evidence’:

‘Not exactly,’ I replied uncomfortably.

‘What is this about?’ I asked firmly.

‘Next’, Marino said like a drill sergeant.

To be fair, she also writes dialogue with the good old he said/she said, and some exchanges, when only two people are talking, without dialogue tags.

Crime writer Mark Billingham only uses dialogue tags to make it clear who is speaking. In Sleepyhead, the first in his Tom Thorne series, his characters hold lots of conversations where there isn’t a dialogue tag in sight, not even a he said or a she said. So long as we know who is speaking, they’re not necessary.

Ernest Hemingway, supposedly a stickler for cutting down his writing to the bare essentials, on some occasions littered his books with dialogue tags. At other times, however, he left them out. In this exchange, the first bit of dialogue in chapter one of For Whom the Bell Tolls, we have:

‘Is that the mill?’ he asked.


‘I do not remember it.’

At this stage we don’t even know who is talking, but the conversation is interesting enough to keep us reading.

Novels from the 1930s and 1940s are often crammed with clunky dialogue tags. Here’s an example from Agatha Christie’s Murder at the Vicarage, first published in 1930:

‘Griselda,’ I said sharply. ‘I will not have you speaking in that way.’

‘Darling,’ said my wife affectionately. ‘Tell me about him…’

The words sharply and affectionately, are unnecessary. If the author showed us how the characters behaved rather than telling us, the dialogue would be more interesting. It’s also likely that readers were not as demanding in those days as they are now, and to be fair, some readers aren’t demanding at all. The success of celebrity publications by people who haven’t a creative bone in their bodies, proves this beyond doubt. (I won’t list the titles – you know who they are.)

I’m certain there are some books that, if you removed all the dialogue tags, the word count would shrink by several thousand. Which might suggest the author is simply padding out the narrative. I’ve also heard it said that by using single quotation marks instead of double ones (as a lot of American authors do) that books can be shortened by several dozen pages.

But that’s another story.

NB This post first appeared as part of a guest post on The Enchanted Emporium Bookshelf.

  4 comments for “Dialogue Tags and Other Irritations

  1. 01/05/2023 at 4:52 PM

    Excellent points! I had a teacher, back when, who said show don’t tell. Overuse of adverbs can be superfluous and actually be a deterrent to the story. I still do it, though, but I try not to. Thanks for sharing.


    • 01/05/2023 at 7:59 PM

      Absolutely – as Stevie King says, the road to Hell is paved with adverbs 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • 02/05/2023 at 4:57 PM

        Good one. Thanks for taking the time. By the way, Colin is my son’s name!


      • 03/05/2023 at 7:48 AM

        As I always say – you can’t keep a good Colin down 😉

        Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: