He Said, She Said: A Mini Essay About Dialogue Tags

There’s a lot of annoyingly didactic stuff written about dialogue, and how you want active, iiiiiinteresting dialogue tags (but they can’t be too colorful–no “intoned” or “bawled,” please) and lots of little actions in media res, like having your character sniff a bouquet of lavender as they spout off a monologue. Apparently this will make your characters come to life–they’ll practically spring off the page, hide in your closet, and leap on top of you, fangs blazing, in the middle of the night! And who doesn’t want that?

First of all, I don’t like writing advice–you can either write or you can’t, I’m sorry if that sounds extreme but Extreme is my middle name. Second of all, I kind of hate dialogue tags in literary fiction, no matter how subtle they think they are. (I think they’re necessary in children’s fiction, but perhaps that’s because children are stupid.) They’re so distracting. Unless someone is screaming or whispering or perhaps lathering at the mouth from a bad case of rabies, I don’t really care if you rasp or groan or choke out your words or whatever. I am a huge fan of the simple “said.” I mean, do you really want to read something like this?

“I heard you ordered a tub cleanser, ma’am,” he mumbled, peeling an orange with his teeth.
She spun around on one slender toe and gasped, “The soapier the better!”

No no no no no. I like this:

“Hi,” he said.
“Hi,” she said.
He was cute. She was hungry. She ate him.


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