Dialogue tags. Sometimes we love them. Sometimes we hate them. Sometimes they help. Sometimes they weigh us down. However you slice it, dialogue tags are a necessary part of fiction writing, but it's up to us to make them work for us.
I'm no great expert on the subject of dialogue tags, but I have gathered some helpful information in my years as an avid reader and writer. When writing dialogue, obviously the focus is on the characters' words, but the dialogue tags can be away to show action and express emotion. If used properly, dialogue tags can reveal bits of character and become a part of the character arc.
Generally speaking, my first instinct is to NOT use a dialogue tag, but rather to end the sentence with the dialogue, and then begin a new sentence with some sort of action the character is taking. The example below is from my YA novel ONCE AGAIN.
“They probably got stuck here when the other electives filled up.” He shrugged and grinned. Not only was it the first pleasant look I’d gotten from him, but his smile was a total killer. “Not a lot of kids choose to take a class where you have to read books.”
"Shrugged and grinned" reveals part of Lucas's character... that he's kind and genuine... and the following sentence gives a glimpse into how our heroine, Layla, sees him. By NOT using a dialogue tag, I was able to keep the action moving forward, while still building character.
However, sometimes a dialogue tag is the best choice. Maybe there's no physical action your character can believably take at that point in the conversation. Rather than contrive something, I will go one of two ways.
Either a generic dialogue tag, such as "said" or "answered", such as this example, also from ONCE AGAIN:
“I remember Mr. Hartley’s tests from last year,” he said. “They can be lengthy.”
By using the practically invisible tag "said", the dialogue tag doesn't interrupt the flow of the conversation. The reader almost skips over it. I find when I'm reading, a generic dialogue tag doesn't even register on my vocabulary-meter, and the dialogue just flows on without any sort of hiccup.
The second option, when I can't legitimately use some sort of action (as in the first example) is to use a tag-word that implies emotion or a character trait. In the option below, the heroine is responding to the quote above about Mr. Hartley's tests:
“I was afraid of that,” I laughed. “Fortunately, Jessie’s good at it, so maybe she can help me get prepared."
The word "laughed" allows me to show Layla's feelings. She's happy to have someone who understands her nervousness over Mr. Hartley's chemistry test. She's also becoming increasingly more comfortable with and fond of Lucas at this point in the story, and using laughter as a tag-word gave me the chance to show the reader the developing friendship between them. While words like "laughed" aren't necessarily invisible the way "said" or "answered" can be, they still maintain the pacing of the dialogue, without weighing it down.
Finally, avoid adverbs in dialogue tags. I will not claim to be perfect in this, but I do try very hard to avoid them when writing dialogue. Some authors try to stay away from adverbs altogether, and while I do limit my adverb-usage (particularly upon editing), I find that sometimes I just have to use one. However, in a dialogue tag, an adverb is the kiss of death. In my opinion, as a reader and a writer, adverbs used in dialogue tags slow the pacing to a snail's speed. More importantly, and adverb just TELLS the reader how a character said something.
"Shut up!" he said angrily or "I can't believe it," she said wistfully.
These examples assume the reader must be spoon-fed the characters' feelings in the simplest way possible. Most readers are far more sophisticated than that, and this type of dialogue tagging is just plain uninteresting to them.
If I find I'm tempted to use an adverb in a dialogue, I ask myself, "What sort of action can my character do that will SHOW that feeling". In the following example (again, from ONCE AGAIN), Layla's friend Jessie is giving her the results of the cross-country match, which Lucas won. Their banter is easy, and Jessie is teasing Layla in a friendly way.
“I heard we won the cross-country meet yesterday, and a certain handsome runner came in first,” Jessie teased.
“I have no idea who you’re talking about.” I rolled my eyes.
The sentence "I rolled my eyes", SHOWS the reader that Layla knows Jessie is teasing and is responding to that as a friend would. I could've just used a dialogue tag such as "I said mockingly", but that would've been TELLING the reader, rather than SHOWING the reader.
Dialogue tags can be tricky to navigate, but you can make them work for you. Use action whenever possible. If you can't use action, use a generic tag like "said" or "answered". If you want to convey emotion, use a tag that SHOWS the reader how the character feels, such as "laughed" or "cried". And never, ever use an adverb in a dialogue tag!
Happy reading and writing!