When I started writing creative nonfiction/memoir, the issue of dialogue tags rose its nasty little head early on. I’d never given them much thought in fiction writing, and they don’t exist in poetry. For some reason, nonfiction made me think and rethink what works best. Maybe it’s that more expressive word choices conveyed more information than plain old “said,” but in nonfiction it seemed like overkill to write “stammered” or “giggled” about oneself.
These “more expressive” tags look something like this:
Eventually I took courses online and learned that all the creative and imaginative tags I’d debated were worthless. I think these teachers were right, so I’m sharing what I learned from them.
The idea is to stay as far from “tagging” as possible.
That means that if you can write dialogue where it’s clear who is speaking each line, you don’t need any tags at all. Sometimes you can start a conversation out by identifying the first speaker and then drop tags after that point. Here is a passage from Ann Patchett’s Truth and Beauty:
We stopped at the airport gift shop and I bought a scarf in a red tartan with the money I had left. “Write to me all the time,” she said as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.
“I always do.”
“Write to me more often now. I’m going to miss you more.”
The book is about the friendship of Ann Patchett and Lucy Grealy (Autobiography of a Face). Lucy is leaving and wants Ann to write to her. In this passage, we know it’s Lucy who begins because she is the only other person in the scene and because with her head on Ann’s shoulder, she’s exhibiting her characteristic neediness. In the next line by Ann and the response from Lucy their personalities shine through. The only tag in this whole passage is “she said,” used once.
So why did Patchett use “said” and not a tag with more emotion or more information?
Because said is an invisible word. It’s so common that it exists just under the surface, much like articles (the, a, an) do. It doesn’t intrude on the scene. Instead the dialogue itself is allowed to pop with just a little help from scene setters: “as we walked to the gate, her head back on my shoulder.”
Another way you can avoid a tag is to pair the line of dialogue with an action that advances the plot. Here is a passage from Bernard Cooper’s The Bill from My Father:
“By the time they come, I’ll have proof.”
“So what? What if I was seeing a man?”
My father turned. His hands were shaking. “It’s too soon.”
In this case, the father’s hands shaking pair with his words and create more emotion than if Cooper had written, “It’s too soon,” he said with a shaky voice. What is more important is that by avoiding a tag, the action and the words are not watered down by unnecessary words that attract attention.
Different versions of this “Said is Dead” chart are being shared all over the internet, along with other questionable writing advice. Rather than listening to these sources, pick up a good writing book and follow the advice in there. Two good ones for nonfiction are Natalie Goldberg’s Old Friend from Far Away and Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller & Suzanna Paola.
Have you seen advice online that you know to be wrong?