He Said, She Moaned: The Dreaded Dialogue Tags

Maybe it’s my journalism background, but I’m a Nazi when it comes to attributions or dialogue tags. Oh, one slips in every now and then, but I try to kill it before it can slither its way into a final draft. In Suzanne’s School of Writing, no tag is best, “said” is second-best, “moaned” and “purred” and “wheedled”? Not so much.

But you know what? I don’t think readers care. As writers it’s drilled into us to avoid adverbs, limit adjectives, simplify our dialogue tags. Maybe editors care, or maybe they don’t.

A page at random from a recent mega-selling YA phenom:
“I couldn’t sleep,” I confessed…”Neither could I,” he teased…”Not a chance,” he chuckled…”You’re right,” he decided…”Porridge,” chirped a voice from the mist…

From another NYTimes bestseller, a random page contains:
“Not from a tree,” the spy hissed…”It’s the only place,” he objected…”They dug a tunnel,” he spat…”I can’t get inside,” he whined.

Of course, toss the kind of money at me these books received and I’ll pen florid attributions till the cows come home. Never mind which cows. Does anyone else cringe at these things?

This entry was posted in Uncategorized and tagged , , by Suzanne Johnson. Bookmark the permalink.

About Suzanne Johnson

Author of urban fantasy, paranormal romance, and suspense. As Suzanne Johnson, she is the author of the Sentinels of New Orleans urban fantasy series (Royal Street; River Road: Elysian Fields, Pirate's Alley, Belle Chasse, Frenchmen Street (March 2018). Writing as Susannah Sandlin, she is the author of the Penton Legacy series (Redemption; Absolution; Omega; Storm Force; Allegiance; ILLUMINATION); The Collectors series (Lovely, Dark, and Deep; Deadly, Calm, and Cold); and the Wilds of the Bayou series (Wild Man's Curse; Black Diamond).

4 thoughts on “He Said, She Moaned: The Dreaded Dialogue Tags

  1. I totally agree with your order of preference, Suzanne. The only time I want to read the word ‘moaned’ is if there’s no dialogue at all.

    But I also agree that most readers probably won’t notice them (unless they’re rampant – the tags, that is; not the readers). Once you’re trained to look for them, though, they really sound atrocious.

  2. I don’t put in dialogue tags either. I try to get things across with the action of the characters, usually.

    As a reader, if it’s not overdone, I’m fine with it. But if every bit of dialogue has a tag, it pulls me out of the story. Then it’s a tug-o-war between whether the story is compelling enough to overcome the distraction of too many tags.

  3. I used dialogue tags rarely, I prefer action ones. But I think you’re right, the average reader doesn’t care. Other author/readers are much more likely too!

  4. I agree with you, I don’t think the readers care. I avoid them and try to use beats instead of tags if I have to use anything at all, but I see them in published books all the time.