P.S. It’s Time To Remove Those Adverbial Dialogue Tags


What is a dialogue tag?

Dialogue tags tell us when a character is speaking. They are every ‘he said’ and ‘she asked’ in the books you read and write.

They are important, because they tell us who is speaking. Readers do not like to be confused and you do not want them to lose interest and stop reading.

They are also useful when you want to:

  1. Break up long pieces of dialogue.
  2. Create or cut tension.
  3. Insert an action or a reaction.
  4. Add body language.
  5. Give us an idea of your character’s rhythm of speech.
Good writers make these tags disappear into the story. They do not litter their writing with detracting synonyms for ‘said’, like ‘urged’, ‘whispered’, ‘uttered’, ‘exclaimed’, and ‘grunted’. (I’m even cringing as I write them.) They do use these, but they do so sparingly.
Just as importantly, they stick to ‘said’ and ‘asked’ without over-indulging in adverbial abuse.

What is an adverbial dialogue tag?

Beginner writers love adverbs of manner. They especially love using them in dialogue tags. You’ve seen the trashy fiction filled with those ‘–ly’ adverbs that tell us how we should think or feel instead of allowing the words spoken by the characters, and their actions, to show us what is happening.

An adverbial dialogue tag is when an adverb modifies the verb we use to denote dialogue. For example, ‘he said hastily‘, ‘she said gruffly‘, ‘they asked groggily‘.

When you tell us how somebody says something, you take the power away from their spoken words. If they say something ‘angrily’ or ‘gently’, their body language and emotions become less important because of these ‘telling’ words.

We also tend to concentrate less with padded writing. And adverbs and adjectives are notorious for their ability to clutter up a page.

If we create vivid characters with distinct voices and clear motivations, we do not need that many adverbs in our dialogue tags. Our characters words and actions will show us what they mean.

But…

This does not mean we should avoid adverbial dialogue tags altogether. We can still use them if they offer us an effective way to show an action or an emotion without interrupting the flow of the story. For example, ‘she said curtly’ is better than adding a long sentence that includes actions and body language to show that she is being curt.

So before you write your next ‘warily’, ‘guiltily’, or ‘harshly’, think about whether or not you need it to be there.

Happy writing.

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This article has 0 comments

  1. Erik Schubach

    I am a fan of adverbial dialogue tags, they help set the mood of an interaction along with character posture and the ilk. However, it can be overused and abused at times. I think a good balance is needed to make an enjoyable exchange.

  2. Beth Thompson

    I recently read a book that everyone raved about but I hated because there were no tag lines. Entire pages of dialogue with no indication of who was saying what. It was easy to get lost. I like my dialogue intertwined with action and body language to keep me interested. I don’t need he said or she said, I prefer to know what they are feeling when they speak.

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