🚫 No Dialogue Tags!

Let your words carry the emotion.

For the next week, I challenge you to avoid dialogue tags.

Writers often over-rely on dialogue tags to make up for weak dialogue. This is especially true for emotions. It’s easier to write “she sobbed” than it is to make the rhythm of the words sound like sobbing. It’s easier to write “he said angrily” than it is to infuse the speech with anger.

As a writer, you shouldn’t have to explain what your dialogue means. Your dialogue should be able to carry itself.

Here are a few ways to avoid dialogue tags:

  1. Omit the tag altogether. If the emotion you want can be carried by the words themselves, try omitting the tag.

  2. Change the tag to a physical action. If the emotion is better portrayed with a physical action, do that instead. For example, “he buried his face in his hands”.

  3. Use “said” once in a while. If you must label the speaker, try only using “said” as your dialogue tag. Emotion adverbs (e.g. “said sadly”, “said proudly”, etc) are often used as crutches to prop up bad dialogue.

I’m not saying you should always avoid dialogue tags. In fact, classic literature is often filled with thousands of tags (see, for example, The Great Gatsby). This is just an exercise to help you write stronger dialogue.

Doing this exercise is like taking away the training wheels on a bicycle. It forces you to adapt and learn.

Examples

Here’s an example of omitting the tag altogether. Notice when I remove the tag, the original dialogue falls flat because the cadence doesn’t match the emotion. With the original, I have to tell you John is angry. The rewritten version sounds angry:

  • With tag: “No, you have to leave,” John bellowed angrily. “Get out of here and never come back.”

  • Tag removed: “No, you have to leave. Get out of here and never come back.”

  • Rewritten: “Get out. Now. And don’t you dare come back.”

Now, here’s an example of using physical actions instead of dialogue tags. Notice how the action changes the tone of the dialogue. In the passage with the dialogue tag, you don’t know what kind of emotion she has. Is she sad? Panicking? Blaming herself? Suicidal? By adding the action, I’m showing you the exact emotion:

  • With tag: “I can’t believe I lost it all,” she sobbed. “Why did I go all in on that bet?”

  • With physical action: “I can’t believe I lost it all.” She slumped in her chair, her nails digging into her scalp. “Why did I go all in on that bet?”

An Entire Novel With Only Dialogue?

Cormac McCarthy’s novel Stella Maris is the best example of dialogue carrying itself. The novel is entirely dialogue. No tags. No action.

McCarthy managed to convey every single emotion with speech. Check it out:

All right. How serious was this plan?

Pretty serious. It was called Plan 2-A.

Why was it called Plan 2-A?

It just was. It was subtitled or not 2-B.

The trip was not?

I was not. I thought that I would go to Romania and that when I got there I would go to some small town and buy secondhand clothes in the market. Shoes. A blanket. I’d burn everything I owned. My passport. Maybe I’d just put my clothes in the trash. Change money in the street. Then I’d hike into the mountains. Stay off the road. Take no chances. Crossing the ancestral lands by foot. Maybe by night. There are bears and wolves up there. I looked it up. You could have a small fire at night. Maybe find a cave. A mountain stream. I’d have a canteen for water for when the time came that I was too weak to move about. After a while the water would taste extraordinary. It would taste like music. I’d wrap myself in the blanket at night against the cold and watch the bones take shape beneath my skin and I would pray that I might see the truth of the world before I died. Sometimes at night the animals would come to the edge of the fire and move about and their shadows would move among the trees and I would understand that when the last fire was ashes they would come and carry me away and I would be their eucharist. And that would be my life. And I would be happy.

I think our time is up.

I know. Hold my hand.

Hold your hand?

Yes. I want you to.

All right. Why?

Because that’s what people do when they’re waiting for the end of something.

—Cormac McCarthy, Stella Maris

Dear Friends,

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Cheers,
Teng

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