Wednesday, April 11, 2018

How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags – Part 2: Showing vs. Telling

Last week, we discussed why an issue arises when we use too many dialogue tags in our fiction. So how can us fiction writers write effective dialogue tags that 1) don’t distract readers from the scene, and 2) shows rather than tells?

It’s much easier to show how this is accomplished rather than tell you about it. (See what I did there?) ;)

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Here’s an example of what NOT to do:

“I don’t care!” he shouted angrily. “I want some ice cream.”

What’s wrong with this example?

The writer uses the adverb angrily to tell how he said the speech. Since adverbs almost always tell rather than show, they need to be omitted from manuscripts when possible.

Let’s rewrite this in a way that shows that the character said this “angrily”:

“I don’t care!” He yanked the lid off the ice cream tub and jammed a spoon into the nearly-frozen dessert. “I want some ice cream.”

Why does this work better?

For one, because the tag “he shouted” is unnecessary in this case. The exclamation point implies that he shouted this sentence. Also, do you notice how the action tag invites the reader deeper into a scene? The reader will pick up on the fact that he’s angry by the way he “yanks” the lid off and “jams” a spoon into the container. (Side note: Always replace adverbs with strong verbs when possible. When chosen carefully, these strong verbs will set the mood you’re trying to establish.)

Are you starting to see how action beats can be far more effective in showing than dialogue tags?

Here’s another example of what NOT to do:

“I’ve never been good enough,” Sarah mumbled sadly.

What’s wrong with this example?

First, the statement she makes—that she’s never been good enough—can stand on its own. The reader will most likely pick up the hint that she means this in a sad way, not in an enthused way.

Let’s rewrite this in a way that shows that the character mumbled this “sadly”:

“I’ve never been good enough.” Sarah’s words were mumbled, and her head lowered as she stared at the big red F on her report card. Tears welled in her eyes, blurring the ink.

Why does this work better?

Again, this rewrite invites the reader to step into the scene. The action beats don’t interrupt the flow of the story, and the reader understands that the character is sad. How does the reader reach this conclusion? Through her dialogue, mumbled words, body language (head lowered), tears, and props (red F on the report card).

The other reason we want to avoid dialogue tags in our fiction is because it could result in choppy dialogue.

Here’s an example:

“Why are you here?” Ben asked. 
“Because I want to be,” Jessica said. “Is that a problem?” she asked. 
“No, I just thought you might have plans this morning,” he said. 
“I canceled them,” she said. “Besides … maybe I wanted to spend my day with you.”

What’s wrong with this example?

Not only is this dialogue smoother, but as the reader, I have no idea how the characters are saying this dialogue. Are they angry with each other? Sincere? Sarcastic? Or is Ben happy that Jessica is there?

Now, the easy way to fix this would be, of course, to add adverbs. For example:

“Is that a problem?” she asked sarcastically.

But again, this is weak because it doesn’t invite the reader deeper into the scene. It relies on the adverb to tell readers that she asked this sarcastically.

So, let’s rewrite this dialogue in a way that shows and doesn’t come across as choppy:

“Why are you here?” A furrow creased between Ben’s brows. 
“Because I want to be.” Jessica took a step closer to him, fidgeting with the chain on her necklace. 
Ben couldn’t help himself—the lightness in her voice, and the brief smile she flashed at him, stole his breath. She tilted her head at him and said, “Is that a problem?” 
“No”—he couldn’t fight the smile slipping onto his lips—“I just thought you might have plans this morning.” Why was his heart racing so fast? 
“I canceled them.” She stood in front of him now and reached for his hand. “Besides … maybe I wanted to spend my day with you.”

Why does this work better?

Not only is this dialogue no longer choppy, but it also gives the reader greater insight into the scene and characters. Thanks to the action/expression beats, the readers can now understand that the two characters aren’t angry at each other; in fact, they were flirting with each other. The first example didn’t exactly give that impression.

Notice that I used Ben’s POV interior monologue to give more insight into his heart/mind. (For example: “Ben couldn’t help himself—the lightness in her voice, and the brief smile she flashed at him, stole his breath.”)

You’ll also notice that the dialogue tag “said” was used; however, it was nearly invisible, wasn’t it? That’s how it should remain in our manuscripts. We should use them sparingly, carefully, and only when necessary. (It could actually be omitted in this example and we would still understand that Jessica was speaking.)


When we use dialogue tags the wrong way in our writing, we rob our readers from having a “fictive dream” experience. This is the experience that comes when readers forget they’re reading a book and are swept into the lives of the characters.

When we write, we should pretend as if we’re allowing a movie to play on the screens of our readers’ minds. Movies rely on character’s body language, emotions, actions, and props to fill in the gaps between the dialogue. All of this shows what needs to be shown throughout dialogue rather than tells. (This includes subtext.)

The advantage we have as an author that filmmakers lack? We can go deeper. We can give our readers direct access into the heart and mind of our point of view characters.

So let’s use the tools we have—action/voice/emotion beats, description/props, exposition, and interior monologue—and weave these elements into our dialogue. Let’s erase all traces of telling by being intentional with our dialogue tags and using them the right way.

What’s your advice for writing effective dialogue tags? As a reader, do you find it distracting to read dialogue that uses too many dialogue tags? Let me know in the comments!


How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags – Part 2: Showing vs. Telling #amwriting #writingcraft @TessaEmilyHall


  1. As a reader, I do find too many dialogue tags distracting. I get so caught up in the characters lunging, smiling, stomping, etc, that I lose track of the conversation. If the writer wants me to pay attention to the words the characters say, then less take is better.

    1. Sorry, I should have typed "less tags are better".


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