writing tip of the week: dialogue tags (part 2)

Wow it’s been a crazy week! My lesson planning is in full swing (looking forward to sharing some of it here, actually), and the first day of classes grows ever closer. Wasn’t it June only yesterday or so?

This week’s writing tip is the second and final part in a discussion on dialogue tags. Last week I talked about not using repetitive tags (tags that do the work the dialogue already did) and trying to avoid writing dialogue that needs to be rescued by tags. This week, though, is about exceptions. Because of course there are exceptions. And I’ve put together a few examples of times I think dialogue tags work well.

For Pacing

I’m starting with this tip for admittedly selfish reasons: I love to use dialogue tags for pacing. I like to pay attention to the rhythm in my prose, and I think dialogue tags can be a good tool for the way it sounds when read aloud. They can also add suspense at times.

Raymond Carver and Amy Hempel are two writers who I think do this extremely well. Check out that first link to hear Richard Ford read three stories by Raymond Carver (so you can hear the pacing) and then look at “Today Will Be a Quiet Day,” by Amy Hempel to see what it looks like on the page, though I think her work sounds awesome read aloud, too.

For Irony or the Unexpected

Sometimes tags are necessary because the dialogue is not being said in the way a reader would expect. Maybe your character is feeling snippish rather than romantic when he says, “I love you,” to his wife, or maybe a character deadpans a joke or fakes indignation. These are instances where a little bit extra in a dialogue tag can expand rather than interfere with meaning.


This one is always a sticking point for me. While I know that genres like romance often use the convention of…shall we say explanatory dialogue tags, I still feel the writing would be stronger without it. Still, who I am to decide the conventions of an entire genre?

Another genre where we see more detailed dialogue tags, specifically ones with adverbs, is children’s writing. Part of a book’s job at that age is to expose children to language, and with a child’s growing understanding of how people say things, adding descriptive adverbs makes a fair bit of sense in terms of helping children expand their vocabluaries. I wrote reading passages for children in grades three through eight for a year, and breaking myself of the habit of simple dialogue tags was very difficult.

So there you have it! My expanded thoughts on dialogue tags with some guidelines on when they can help and when they just interfere. Happy writing!

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