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Dialogue Tags and the Dreaded “Said”, A Self-Publishing Editing Tip

December 15, 2020
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If you’re a self-publisher, you’ve probably experienced, or I hope you have experienced, the slow process of editing. There are many tips I’ve found in my editing process that may help other self-publishers. That’s what you’ll find in this series, a set of editing tips, all used by me, and all have improved my overall writing.

First up: He said, “Let’s talk about dialogue tags.”

I remember reading The Old Man and the Sea by Ernest Hemingway. Despite its popularity as one of the great books of the 20th century, it’s not a good memory. The repetition I experienced in this literary work made the inside of my skull burn.

Regardless of opinions on the book, one thing is certain…

Hemingway uses a lot of “said” tags. After reading this book, I vowed to do my best to eliminate those tags. I researched how to write dialogue as I began my journey and found the perfect solution.

When you write dialogue, let the action describe what is happening.

You can describe the voice and body language as part of the action, too.

Take this example.

George said, “Calm down.”

Helen said, “Go away.”

George said, “Can you just calm down?”

Helen said, “No.”

This is boring and repetitive. As self-published writers, we have to do our best to keep our readers entertained. Boring doesn’t cut it. Watch what happens when I change the dialogue.

George held his hands in surrender. “Calm down.”

Helen stomped her foot. “Go away.”

George pleaded, “Can you just calm down?”

Helen threw her hands in the air. “No.”

The dialogue takes on a whole new meaning. Actions take over the scene and allow you to imagine with more detail. Did you notice that one small thing?

There’s absolutely no mention of “said”.

This doesn’t mean “said” should be eliminated from your writing. It has a purpose. Sometimes we don’t have any action to show. Sometimes we’re switching between characters and need to let readers know which character “said” the dialogue.

If you use said, just make sure it’s before the dialogue. There’s nothing worse than reading several paragraphs to find this example.

“Hey, can you get me the pen sitting on the counter? I think it’s over there somewhere. You know where,” George said. “When you’re done, can you start the oven?”

When a reader imagines several paragraphs of non-conversational prose to find that dialogue, they don’t know who to imagine saying it. Then they get to the tag. If you’re like me, you go back and imagine the dialogue again, because it completely changes the scene if Helen is talking.

George said, “Hey, you get me the pen sitting on the counter? I think it’s over there somewhere. You know where. When you’re done, can you start the oven?”

Now, a reader immediately knows George is speaking. If you want to break off the dialogue for pacing, use action.

George said, “Hey, you get me the pen sitting on the counter? I think it’s over there somewhere.” He pointed to the table with a pair of reading glasses in his hands. “You know where. When you’re done, can you start the oven?”

The action breaks the dialogue up for pacing, AND the reader knows who is speaking.

So if you’re looking to improve your self-editing practice, start looking over the placement of your dialogue tags. Ask yourself the following questions.

Does the reader immediately know who’s speaking?

Can I use an action instead of “said”?

Are you using it as part of your style? There’s nothing wrong with doing things differently if it’s a style that works for you. Just don’t allow your style to impede the flow of your story.

Place your dialogue tags first. I’ll cover this in more detail in the next Self-Editing Tip.

If you want an in-depth look at dialogue, I highly recommend James Scott Bell’s How to Write Dazzling Dialogue. This is the first book I read on dialogue. It may have been the first writing book I read in early 2018 when my journey started. Either way, it is an excellent resource when it comes to describing ways to improve your dialogue skills.

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