On the Art of Minimizing Repetition in Dialogue Tags

Okay, so this was supposed to have been posted yesterday, as last week’s general post. Technically, it was finished and I could have put it up. Unfortunately, I wasn’t happy with it and decided to sleep on it and revise today. I did do so, even adding a couple of new examples and paragraphs but I admit I’m still not overly content with the result. It is, I suppose, a little too bare bones and simple for my liking. I’m also almost certain I missed a few good methods. As such, I might well come back and either revise this post or revisit the topic in another. Anyway, onto the actual topic.


So, what do I mean by that title? It’s simple really and I imagine it’s an issue for every author that doesn’t write in the first person. Maybe even for some of those that do, for that matter. The need for  dialogue tagging, of marking who is speaking for your readers, is critical any time you have more than one character talking in sequence. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, it’s so easy to tell the characters apart that there is no need for the tags as there will never be any confusion on the part of the reader. The rest of the time, however, you’re going to need some way of marking when Jim stops taking and Jane replies.

The problem, of course, comes when you’ve got too damn many times you need to do this. Nothing screams amateur writing quite like five or six sentences with obvious tags like “Jim said” or “James asked” all in a row. Of course, everyone uses some common methods to avoid the issue. There’s very few real ways to avoid needing some sort of cue but you can alter that cue in all sorts of ways so it doesn’t get repetitive or silly. I’ll start out with a few of the basics, the stuff you already probably know…but I’ll follow up with a few more that I’ve found useful myself. Even those will probably seem obvious to some of you but I’ve never once seen a list of the various alternatives, so hopefully some people find the following helpful.

 

The Basic Methods:

Names:

Okay, so this is so basic that a particularly literate turtle could probably point it out. I still feel the need to include it, as much for a warning against overuse as for the description of its use. This is one of the bare bones, bread and butter methods and consists of simply identifying who is speaking by having the new speaker call the previous speaker, or a target of their speech, by name. Obviously, this works best with only two speakers, but can occasionally be extended to include small groups if other methods (such as gender designators) are employed alongside.

However, there is also that warning to consider. It is very easy to overuse this method while attempting to avoid the “he said/she said” tags. Two friends, in example, would not be likely to use each other’s names multiple times in a conversation. As such, outside of some specialty areas like courtroom scenes, this method is best used very sparingly in any given section of  dialogue.

Genders:

Another, only slightly less obvious, way to designate who is speaking is by adding a gender reference. Let’s say, as our example, that three individuals are bantering back and forth. Of these characters one is female and two are male. Thus, when one of them speaks using gender pronouns for their companions, the choices of who is speaking are narrowed naturally.

Likewise, this also works well as replacement for overusing “Jim said” or “John said” by allowing you to use actions or gestures as tags. Using the two/one male/female split from above, an example would be something along the lines of “she gestured wildly as she answered.” Clearly, this allows for only one of the three characters to be the speaker. Simple. Obvious. But again, one of the bread and butter means by which to eliminate overused tags like “John said” or “Sally asked.”

Actions:

While this one is particularly obvious now, given the example I just used in #2, it bares pointing out that action snippets are among the most effective ways to tag a speaker.

Jack twitched in surprise, delaying a long moment before answering. “Fine, but you’re buying.”

or

Sally glared at him. “You jerk.”

Be it complex or simple, an action assigned to the speaker (or, more rarely to the person not speaking) can work just as well as a “he said/she said” type tag. This type of speaker-tagging, however, is another one that can be easily overused. If every other line has an action tag like this it can get very ridiculous, very quickly. While it’s among the most useful, like all of these methods, it needs to be mixed and matched with others to keep a scene flowing smoothly.

Alternatives:

Alternatives are, simply put, the methods you might have used as a teenager when your English teacher told you so stop using “said” so much. You figured out pretty quick that you could mix in “implored,” “yelled,” and “wailed” with a simple trip to the thesaurus. Obviously, this is generally stupid. Simply changing the word doesn’t really change the problem and the reader still gets smacked in the face with awkward dialogue.

However! It is important to note that sometimes, on rare occasion, using an alternative can work. I can’t give you rules for that, it’s something most good authors and editors do by instinct and feel. I can generalize, however, and state that it generally works best when you’re also using the word to alter the speaker’s tone. In example, injecting sarcasm or sorrow into the character’s words. In such instances, using normal “Jim said” phrases, then following them up a few lines later with a “Jim drawled” might just work to effect a change from normal speech to deadpan humor, while also allowing you to tag the speaker. Because the tag is doing dual-duty as a tone change it is much less likely to irritate the reader.

Response Chains

These are probably the gold standard, in a way, as they are essentially text with no need for tagging at all. Generally, it’s only useful for two characters at a time, but you can sometimes work small groups, depending on the dialogue needed. In essence, this is nothing more than ending a previous speaker’s sentence in such a way that the next bit of dialogue is obviously going to be a response and thus doesn’t need a dialogue tag. Questions wanting for answers are the obvious example but far from the only way to use this method. Arguments, for instance, would be an excellent usage.

“You never cared about me.” Sally growled.

“I did so, you were the most important thing in my life.”

“Then why…why did you leave?”

And so on. Yes, horrible example, I know. But the point in made. That little heavy handed bit of dialogue could go on for a dozen lines without any confusion about who was speaking. I don’t actually know if this has a proper name, which is why I simply call them “response chains.” Because each speaker is clearly saying something in response to the previous speaker, you don’t need to tag each speaker for every new line. The reader will pick it up naturally from context.

Other Methods

Accents:

This is certainly one to use sparingly, in most cases, but it’s also highly effective. If you have a character who has an accent, or even simply a distinctive pattern of speech (of Yoda, you should think), you can completely escape any need for tagging for that character’s lines. This can be a Godsend in dialogue heavy books…but be aware that heavy accents or large numbers of differing accents can confuse or annoy the reader. Also, there is a good chance that your editor will hate your guts for the rest of eternity if you overuse this method.

Visual Cues:

Much like gender designators, visual cues can replace dialogue tags. Say, for example, that you’re writing sci-fi and have a purple alien. Referencing the purple alien as waving his hand about before speaking can clue the reader into it being the alien in question who is speaking. That example also uses an action, obviously, and this method is normally paired with another of some sort. You can, however, occasionally mange unpaired usage.

Titles/Ranks and Nicknames

Nicknames should be obvious but titles are less so. I’ve personally found this one of the very best methods to work with as it can be entirely inside the speech itself. As a simple example, on a military ship with an officer speaking to their captain, something like “I’ll get right on that, sir!” makes it easy to understand who was speaking. Even in groups, a trio of senior officers and one junior can easily identify speaker changes with usage of rank or title. Nor is it limited to the military, a group of teenagers might call a woman “ma’am” or a peasant call a noble “milord” or “milady.”


Now, there are probably a half dozen more means that could be tacked onto this list. And, as I said at the top of the post, I’m not entirely happy with the list as it stands. Even so, I hope it helps people when they get stuck, if nothing else. I’ve certainly have my own moments of frustration in which glancing at a list like this would have been helpful. Heck, I’ll probably end up referring to it myself, just as a way to help me chose methods more easily with particularly stubborn bits of dialogue. If you can think of any other methods I missed, feel free to add them in the comments. If they make sense to me I’ll add them to the post proper, along with a tag giving credit to the commenter.

 

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