Instead of: “Stop it!” James said. [He could be angry but then again he could be laughing hard and telling someone to stop it. But if we say: James said, angrily, we’re telling.]
Instead of: “Is she serious?” Amber asked, rolling her eyes.
Instead of: “Gosh, I love this song,” Jill said, dreamily. [Yikes an ly word]
Instead of: “Try it, you little weasel,” Jake bellowed. “Just try it.”
Instead of: “You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him.
The same idea applies to the he or she thought tags.
Instead of: Can this day get any worse? Jane wondered.
Instead of: If he comes through that door, I’ll brain him, Jill silently vowed.
Punctuation can be used to negate tags that indicate strong feelings. To demonstrate what I mean, I’ll use one of my above examples.
“You jerk!” Pam screamed, swinging her handbag at him.
Given there is an exclamation mark after jerk, we know Pam said this with strong feelings. Unless we want her screaming to draw the attention of characters around her, we don’t need to “tell” the reader she screamed. Also, her actions indicate anger and that makes the tag an even bigger overkill. But what if Pam said it under her breath so as not to draw attention? Do we need to say, she whispered? It works. But we could also say: Pam sneered and leaned close, her lips a mere inch from his ear. “Jerk.”
Note: Don’t over use exclamation marks. Again, body language will work just as well.
It must be said, though, that having all the characters on stage constantly nodding, scratching, dancing and throwing things would be just as annoying — not to mention ridiculous — as too many tags. So a few tags are allowed and in some instances they work better for a tight, straight to the point sentence.
I know of no set rules on how many dialogue tags are allowed on a page. The best rule of thumb is to vary your dialogue and cut them when possible. And if you’re still unsure, read the page out loud. Too many tags make the writing sound choppy. They also distract.
The right balance will result in tighter writing that “shows more and “tells” less.
Interesting related websites: