Tuesday, 4 December 2012

Tag or No Tag? Showing Not Telling

When writing every author will have their own opinions as to the presence and effectiveness of dialogue tags. Nobody is right and nobody is wrong. However with every word counting on the page there are different schools of thought. 

Stephen King says in ‘On Writing’ to only use said. 

Others will use dialogue tags very very sparingly or not at all. Stuart MacBride is an advocate of never using dialogue tags and his books rank very highly among my favourites
Yet again other authors will use all kind of different descriptive tags such as answered, snapped, asked, howled and so on and so on. 

Personally I now try to use as few dialogue tags as humanly possible with said being the only one I will use. My train of thought is that the character’s voices should be strong enough to denote the speaker. This for me is an extension of showing as opposing to telling. Different emphasis on certain words can change everything. 

Take for example the three passages below which all have exactly the same dialogue. 

Passage A
‘Go away,’ yelled Susan
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ snarled Brian angrily, ‘you cheated on me. Why should I leave?’
‘Please calm down,’ cried Susan.
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’ Brian repeated.
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go,’ sobbed Susan.
‘And I have?’ asked Brian.

Passage B
‘Go away.’
‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Brian, ‘you cheated on me. Why should I be the one to leave?
‘Please calm down.’
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go,’ said Susan.
‘And I have?’

Passage C
I’m not going anywhere. You cheated on me Susan. Why should I be the one to leave?
‘Please. Calm down.’
‘Why should I be the one to leave?’
‘I haven’t got anywhere else to go.’

For me Passage A is tagged to death and I would not enjoy reading anything which was written in this way. Also I hate seeing the word “asked” right after a question mark. The question mark itself shows that something is asked. This kind of overload has been known to make my teeth itch. I'm an adult for goodness sake. I'm not perfect at grammar but I know the squiggly line above a dot means someone has asked a question. (rant over)
Passage B is the middle ground and is indicative enough to identify the speakers without intrusion. This does tend to be the norm in most of the books I read and said become background chatter which is easily ignored.
Passage C is in my humble opinion the strongest of the three and says so much more than A or B because it treats the reader as an adult.

If the author were to have Susan move behind a table or shrink back from Jason in the narrative then it will show her fearing him. Or Brian could throw something across the room. It would be showing not telling, which every decent author always promotes. 

We all have an opinion on this. Please share yours.



  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Hey Graham. Once again we see eye to eye, buddy. Almost. I would differ respectfully with you about Passage C.

    Tags are one of the hardest things to get a handle on and everyone sees them dfferently. I tend to agree with King -- and before him, Leonard -- in sticking with "said". I carry your example in Passage B a bit farther toward the briefer, blunter side.
    Generally I would use "Look," he said instead of "Look,"said he. (Though I'm thinking that's just the different usages between UK and US English)

    You can often use physical action tags too. "Look." He pointed at the skyline, "There it is."

    Passage A. concerns those folks who verge on the Tom Swiftian (Swifty)dialogue of the twenties. "A Bomb, Tom said explosively. Or, "Oops, the goes my hat," Tom said off the top of his head.

    Passage C also falls into the melodramatic days of yesteryear with the explosive usage of caps and exclamation marks. I think action tags would work better here. For me, the caps and exclamation points -- while admittedly effective -- are a bit distracting.

    For me, Passage B -- with a few action tags added -- is the best of the three.

    Thought provoking, mate. Thanks.

  3. Dammit, Graham, even though I didn't previously share your antipathy towards 'asked' I have got suddenly very self-conscious about its use. Which isn't to say it is totally verboten, but ...

    Like AJ I dislike the capitals immensely, but think passage B does require something else to make it more active, e.g.
    ‘I’m not going anywhere,’ said Brian, slamming his mug down so hard that its contents splashed ‘you cheated on me. Why should I be the one to leave?

    I'd also recommend

    for more thought-provoking words on dialogue. Thank you.