PSA: Dialogue Tags

by megsilver on September 2, 2015

Authors and editors, lend me your ears:

I read a lot. I love books, and I love stories.

Now, before I get into the following rant, let’s get something straight. I am not perfect. I have my strengths and weaknesses as an author. As an editing team, Emma and I never catch every problem. We follow up with a beta team in an attempt to catch issues in mechanics, continuity and whatever else, and we STILL don’t catch every problem. Mistakes and issues embarrass the shit out of me, and I’ve been embarrassed a lot over the years, okay? So I’m not speaking from a position of superiority, I’m speaking from a “I want to love new-to-me authors and their stories” position.

I will also set this up by saying I picked up a new fantasy series recently. I love the story, but there is something HUGELY DISTRACTING about the dialogue tags. This is something that drives me straight up a fucking wall, and I see it so frequently that I decided to post about the issue to raise awareness that THIS IS A HUGELY DISTRACTING PROBLEM. Also completely avoidable once authors and editors pay attention.

I will not post examples from this series I’m reading because I don’t like to single people out, but here’s the core of the issue. Repetitive “beat” dialogue tags. I’m not talking about he said, she said, he asked, she asked, or whatever. We all know those are invisible tags that readers reference rather than read.

The problem tags are “action” or “beat” tags like the following:

  • He sighed.
  • He nodded.
  • He smiled.
  • He chuckled. (Side note: I know this is a personal thing, but if you ever use that tag, I don’t care how good your story is, that shit is getting thrown at the wall and never picked up again. Ever.)
  • He shrugged.
  • He shook his head.

If authors/editors don’t believe this repetitive action tag thing is an issue, there is a particular author whose wizard series I absolutely adore and have read like fifty times. He also has another fantasy series. Because I loved his first series, I picked up this other one. In the first book, within the first seven pages, I counted FOURTEEN of the tags from the above list. And guess what? Never read another page of that new series. Never recommend it to friends. Never posted a review (thank God, right?). Never bought another title from that series, and I never will.

I take the problem seriously enough to do an entire editing pass JUST for dialogue tags. I would like more new or new-to-me authors and series if they would do the same.

Please? I really want to love your stories. Please take the extra time to clean up these lazy little devices that could easily be replaced with solid characterization.

Thank you. And I’ll shut up now.

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