Hand-Holding in Dialogue Tags

Anyone who has worked with me knows that I take a pretty hard line when it comes to telling in dialogue tags. Examples are:

“I’m so excited!” she said exuberantly.
“That’s wonderful.” Coldness radiated from his voice.

Nothing bums me out more than reading scenework where the writer has decided to take all the fun out of it on the reader’s behalf. Sometimes I call it “hand-holding,” sometimes I call it “overexplaining,” sometimes I just cross it out.

The reason behind my aversion is that writers who do this are taking something essential away from the reader. The star of dialogue is the dialogue itself. Holding the reader’s hand through each snippet of dialogue says to me that you don’t quite trust yourself to communicate the scene in a way that the reader gets it.

Scene is one of the magic places in a manuscript where characters can be on display, speaking to one another, acting toward one another, and otherwise demonstrating themselves and their relationships. It’s the ultimate voyeur’s paradise (calling the reader a voyeur here). Whenever you tell, instead of show, you take away the reader’s power to interpret and appreciate character.

The first example, above, is there because it’s redundant. You would not believe how many writers do this. If a character says “I’m so excited!” then it can stand alone, with no further explanation. I’d be a wealthy woman if I had $5 for every time I saw:

“I’m sorry,” she apologized.
“Yes,” he agreed.

The second example is more subtle. Your character is saying one thing, but there’s an undercurrent of tension and the suggestion that they mean something else. Delicious! Instead of describing tone of voice (sneaky telling), maybe match up the dialogue with action to color it:

“That’s wonderful.” He crossed his arms.

Or, maybe even better yet, leave it up to reader or POV character interpretation:

“That’s wonderful.”
“Oh yeah? You think so?” The last time he’d used that descriptor, he was watching a snake choking the life out of a mongoose.

Let the character react, which will help guide reader feelings. Dialogue tags exist to communicate information. The two biggest things they should clarify are:

  1. Who is speaking?
  2. Is there anything going on in narration or action that’s not implied in the dialogue?

But too many tags tell about emotions, tone of voice, and tension when those are better uncovered by the reader for lasting character and relationship understanding. Next time you’re working on a scene and you want to try something hard, take out ALL of your dialogue tags and see how it reads. If it’s totally confusing, layer back 25% of what you had before and see if you can make it work.

If you’re one of those writers addicted to dialogue tags, especially in scenes with only two characters, where you theoretically don’t even need them, I bet this will be a revelatory reminder that you’re explaining too much.

8 Replies to “Hand-Holding in Dialogue Tags”

  1. I really like your advice about focusing on interiority to interpret dialogue – that way there are clues both about dialogue and the character reacting to it.

    And about all the telling when it comes to tone of voice and emotion, it’s good to remember that in real life we get cues from body language to interpret someone’s intention, and it would be more interesting for the reader to have to interpret intention the same way.

    Lovely post! πŸ™‚ as usual πŸ™‚

  2. “The star of the dialogue is the dialogue itself.” Posting this above my computer as a simple, terrific reminder. πŸ™‚

  3. Very helpful advice. I’m guilty of abusing of speech tags and sometimes they become too elaborate. I often forget that they can become helpful tools instead of crutches. I love the last example – smart!

  4. Drat.
    Here I’ve been using lines like your example of ‘ β€œThat’s wonderful.” Coldness radiated from his voice. ‘ in order not to constantly use ‘he said,’ figuring I was using action and description to show, not tell. That, and also to avoid a page full of indents and quotation marks…
    Going to need to rethink this.

  5. I love POV character interpretation. It is, to me, the soul of any story. I just got done researching Sheila Turnage’s Middle Grade novels Mo and Dale series, and they’re a perfect example of this. Thank you for all your insights and tips! I’m learning, at the pace of a turtle, but learning none the less:)

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