For those who don’t recognize the term, dialogue tags are the phrases that come after the dialogue itself to reveal the speaker and the type of speech.
For example, in the sentence “You’re safe, little one.” Kate whispered, “You’re safe little one” is the dialogue and “Kate whispered” is the dialogue tag. The sentence doesn’t have many problems on its own. In fact, some might argue it creates a vivid picture in their heads.
So what’s the problem? Not only does it distract readers, it takes away the opportunity to show them something deeper by leading them by the hand.
Consider this revision. Kate cradled her son in arms as he buried his head in her shoulder. “You’re safe, little one.” Now, not only do readers know what Kate is doing, creating a better picture in their minds, they can infer how she said “You’re safe, little one.” with context clues.
Action beats, an alternative to dialogue tags where instead of stating how a phrase is said by a certain character, they act around their speech. This creates a picture with more depth and makes readers infer the type of speech characters use. It’s much better at showing rather than telling.
One downside to action beats is possible wordiness. While it’s true action beats can be a bit of a mouthful, there are ways to find balance. The most obvious solution would be to use a mix of tags and beats to even out long beats with short, direct tags.
You might be tempted by those lists of colorful tags like whispered, shouted, and cried, but don’t underestimate the functionality of said. It’s the most common tag of all of them, making writers think they have to drum up new ones to avoid repetition. However, not only does said work in more instances than any other phrase, it doubles as a quick identifier, and it’s less distracting to the reader. The other tags can take away the power of the dialogue itself by making the reader focus on the tag. On the other hand, said is so common readers tend to block it out, bringing the attention back where it should be.
With a mix of action beats and said as your go-to dialogue tag, you don’t have to worry about repetition. As long as you find a happy medium, readers get vivid images in their heads, and writers no longer have to fish out a thesaurus for alternatives. Instead, they can focus on their characters words and actions, giving them more power. Overall, the mix makes for a much deeper understanding in the reader’s mind, creating a more memorable piece. The verdict: Said isn’t dead!
On a personal note: My style of writing tends to lead me to avoid tags altogether. If fact, with the exception of the example in this piece, I can’t remember the last time I used a dialogue tag. For me, I’ve always preferred action beats to leave inferences to readers. I don’t like being hand-held whether it’s with needless tags or adverbs, so I try to avoid both to better my own work.