Dialogue Tag Mistakes – 5 of the Most Common to Avoid

Posted on Oct 16, 2023

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In the world of storytelling, dialogue tags are the unsung heroes that provide structure to our characters’ conversations.

These tags, like “he said” or “she whispered,” guide readers through the verbal exchanges within the narrative. 

However, using them incorrectly can hinder the natural flow of conversation, confuse character expressions and break the reader’s immersion.

In this article, we will take a deep dive into the common mistakes made with dialogue tags and how to avoid them. 

We will explore nuances that can turn an ordinary tag into a powerful tool for character portrayal and narrative pacing.

By understanding these pitfalls and mastering the art of effective dialogue tags, writers can elevate the impact of their character dialogues, ensuring a more engaging and seamless reading experience.

This article on dialogue tag mistakes contains

  1. What is a dialogue tag?
  2. 10 of the most common examples of dialogue tags
  3. 5 of the most common dialogue tag mistakes to avoid

What is a dialogue tag?

A dialogue tag is a brief phrase or word used to attribute speech to a specific character in a conversation. It provides clarity by indicating who is speaking and can convey the manner or tone in which the dialogue is delivered. 

Common examples include “said,” “asked,” “replied,” or any verb describing how the speech is expressed. Dialogue tags aid in structuring conversations, guiding readers through interactions between characters, and can subtly convey emotions or actions accompanying the speech. 

While essential for clarity, it is crucial to use them carefully to maintain a natural and flowing dialogue within a narrative.

10 of the most common examples of dialogue tags

1. Said

2. Asked

3. Replied

4. Answered

5. Whispered

6. Shouted

7. Exclaimed

8. Murmured

9. Told

10. Continued

Let’s start exploring the main mistakes related to dialogue tags that writers should avoid.

1 – Overuse of fancy tags

One common dialogue tag mistake to be cautious of is the overuse of fancy tags. Writers occasionally fall into the trap of utilizing extravagant or ostentatious dialogue tags in an attempt to diversify their writing. 

However, this approach can often backfire, diminishing the impact of the dialogue and disrupting the reader’s immersion in the story.

What do fancy dialogue tags look like?

When dialogue tags like “he exclaimed,” “she pontificated,” or “they vociferated” are excessively employed, they draw unnecessary attention to themselves, diverting focus from the actual conversation. 

The purpose of a dialogue tag is to seamlessly attribute speech to a character, not to showcase an extensive vocabulary or linguistic creativity. Fancy tags can create a jarring effect, disrupting the natural flow of the dialogue and making it feel contrived or forced.

Plus, overuse of elaborate dialogue tags can undermine the reader’s ability to form their interpretations and emotions based on the dialogue itself. It is vital to allow the dialogue and the characters’ words to speak for themselves, conveying the intended tone, emotion or emphasis without relying on embellished tags.

How to avoid overusing fancy dialogue tags

To avoid this mistake, writers should opt for simple and direct dialogue tags like “said” or “asked” most of the time. 

Reserve the fancy tags for moments when they genuinely enhance the scene and provide a specific, necessary emphasis that simple tags cannot. 

Ultimately, the goal is to maintain a balance, ensuring that the focus remains on the dialogue and the story’s natural progression.

2 – Excessive adverbs with tags

Another common dialogue tag mistake is the excessive use of adverbs to modify the dialogue tag. Writers sometimes append adverbs to verbs in dialogue tags in an attempt to convey how the dialogue is spoken.

For instance, using phrases like “he said loudly” or “she whispered quietly.” However, relying on adverbs in this way can often lead to weak or lazy writing.

The issue with this approach lies in its inability to depict the dialogue vividly and effectively. Instead of using an adverb to describe how something is said, it is usually more impactful to choose a precise verb that inherently carries the intended tone or manner of speaking. 

For example, instead of “said loudly,” one could use “shouted,” which is much more direct and descriptive.

What effect does excessive adverb usage have?

Plus, excessive adverb use can disrupt the natural flow of the dialogue. It can also indicate a lack of faith in the strength of the dialogue itself. Strong dialogue should be able to convey the tone, emotion, or intensity without relying on adverbs.

To avoid this mistake, writers should carefully select verbs in their dialogue tags that accurately represent the way the speech is delivered. 

If a more descriptive verb doesn’t suffice, then consider revising the dialogue itself to ensure it conveys the intended nuances without needing excessive adverbs. 

Overall, it’s about choosing strong, precise words that do justice to the dialogue and the characters.

3 – Redundant descriptions

One significant dialogue tag mistake to steer clear of is redundant descriptions. This occurs when a writer pairs a descriptive dialogue tag with an action that conveys similar information. 

For instance, using phrases like “he smiled, saying” or “she frowned, asking.” This redundancy can clutter the writing and convey a lack of trust in the reader’s comprehension.

The essence of good writing is in the economy of words. Every phrase should carry meaning and add value to the narrative. 

Redundant dialogue tags not only disrupt this principle but also interrupt the natural flow of the dialogue. They act as unnecessary repetition, creating an inefficient and less engaging reading experience.

What’s an alternative to redundant description?

A better approach is to choose one mode of attribution; either the action or the dialogue tag. If the action already conveys how the dialogue is delivered, it’s more effective to use a simple, unobtrusive dialogue tag like “said” or “asked.” This keeps the writing clean and unambiguous.

Writers should always aim for clarity and efficiency in their prose. When a character’s action already portrays their tone or emotion, there’s no need to reiterate it with a dialogue tag. 

Cutting down on unnecessary redundancy allows the dialogue to flow smoothly and keeps the reader focused on the essence of the conversation.

4 – Inappropriate tag choices

An important dialogue tag mistake to avoid is the use of inappropriate tag choices. This mistake involves selecting a dialogue tag that doesn’t accurately reflect the tone, manner or intensity of the character’s speech. 

For instance, using a mundane tag like “said” when the character’s dialogue is actually shouted or whispered.

What makes a dialogue tag inappropriate?

This misstep can lead to confusion or misinterpretation of the intended emotion or expression. Readers rely on dialogue tags to understand how a line is delivered and choosing the wrong tag can create a dissonance between what’s being conveyed and how it’s perceived. 

To rectify this, writers should carefully choose dialogue tags that precisely mirror the character’s delivery. 

If a character is shouting, “shouted” or “yelled” would be more accurate choices than the generic “said.” Similarly, for a whisper, “whispered” or “murmured” would convey the intended tone more effectively.

The key is to select dialogue tags that align with the character’s emotion and expression, providing a clear portrayal of how the dialogue should be interpreted. 

By doing so, writers ensure that the readers accurately perceive the intended mood and atmosphere.

5 – Tagging every line of dialogue

A final dialogue tag mistake that writers should be cautious about is tagging every line of dialogue. While dialogue tags are essential for clarity, using them excessively can be a detrimental practice. 

Tagging every line of dialogue, especially in a two person conversation, can become repetitive and tedious for readers.

What’s the problem with too many dialogue tags?

When each line is tagged, it can hinder the natural flow of the conversation, making it feel stilted and mechanical. 

Additionally, it underestimates the reader’s ability to follow and comprehend who is speaking. Dialogue should read like an engaging and realistic conversation and overtagging disrupts this organic rhythm.

Plus, excessive tagging can indicate a lack of confidence in the writer’s ability to convey emotions, tones or speakers through context and characterization. 

Effective dialogue and well established characters should make it clear who is speaking, reducing the need for constant tags.

How to strike the right balance

Writers should aim for a balance, utilizing dialogue tags when necessary to avoid confusion or to emphasize a point. Essential moments or shifts in emotion may require a clear attribution. 

However, in general, trust the strength of the dialogue itself and the context to guide the reader in understanding the conversation without unnecessary interruptions. 

It’s about finding the sweet spot that maintains clarity while preserving the natural flow and rhythm of authentic dialogue.

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