Dialogue tags. Or Snags. I took the long route when it comes to tagging dialogue. Under the mistaken belief that the snappier, more interesting and unusual my tags, the better dialogue, ergo the better story I’d create. After attending a couple of workshops, to my horror, I learned that the list of fifty plus creative ways of expressing ‘he said, she says’ I’d purposefully, specifically and methodically accumulated were off base and actually operated as snags to my prose.
For the reader, ‘said’ slips in, rolls over and then disappears. Whereas shout, snort, sniff, yell, call, cry, croon, coo, hiss, demand, snap, snipe, reply, respond, exclaim, proclaim, groan, moan, protest, grunt, whine, mumble, grumble, murmur, mutter, utter and all the other cute tags I’d compiled were more often than not operating as story trip lines, stopping the flow and forcing an emotion on the reader.
No doubt it can be difficult to express the intended tone in dialogue with only ‘said’. After all when speaking it’s how we say something that imparts the emotion beneath the words. That’s why it’s so tempting to use a tag. But if something else is needed, then add an action with the words, like a visual body language. Instead of ‘he sniveled’, have the corner of his mouth curl up or his nose twitch as though smelling something unpleasant.
Another method is to use the next line of dialogue to show the reaction to the tone. Instead of ‘she shouted’, the next line could say it all – “You don’t have to yell”.
Tags become a trap because they tell the reader how to feel instead of showing. The emotions in dialogue are best conveyed by the words inside the quotation marks and the actions surrounding them, not the tag.