Dialogue tags and ‘show, not tell’ #WriterWednesday #AuthorToolBoxHop #AmWriting #WritingTips

show not tellShow, not tell. The advice is the bane of every writer’s existence. Of course, we want to show you our story and not tell it. But how? For me this is especially difficult with dialogue. Dialogue tags are my personal nemesis, and my novels are dialogue-driven. Eek! He said, she said sounds horrible (not to mention boring!) to me. On the other hand, writing ‘he grunted with annoyance’ or some such drivel doesn’t sound great either. So, what’s the solution?

I’ve combined the ‘show, not tell’ with the ‘don’t overuse dialogue tags’ advice to come up with a strategy. Instead of indicating who is speaking and the manner in which they speak (grunting, whispering, etc.), I now try to show what the speaker or listener is feeling. Please note: Like all good advice, this shouldn’t be overused. Otherwise, your dialogue will be difficult to find between all the information about how the characters are feeling. Here are a few examples of what I’m talking about.

Relief. Relief is a difficult emotion to write as humans surely don’t sigh as much as I write ‘sighed’ in my novels. Must. Stop. That. Here’s an example of how I managed to rid myself of yet another character sighing.

First draft: “Oh, it’s you Melanie,” Betty sighed in relief. “You nearly scared me to death.

Edited draft: “Oh, it’s you Melanie.” Betty placed a hand over her heart before collapsing in her chair. “You nearly scared me to death.”

Better, right?

Anger. My characters (especially those alpha men who are always protecting their girlfriends who think they can solve crimes) tend to growl in anger a lot. Now, I’m all for a bit of growling. It’s hot! But it can be too much when the male protagonist is constantly growling (I don’t write paranormal, after all!).

First draft. “That’s messed up,” growled Pru.

Yikes! Even my female characters are growling all over the place.

Edited draft. Pru’s jaw clenched. “That’s messed up.”

Annoyed. Annoyance is another difficult one. My characters are always snorting. I absolutely refuse to get rid of the snort, but I am trying to lessen the frequency with which I use it. Here are some ideas of how to show annoyance instead of saying something like He said in an annoyed voice.

• Narrowing eyes
• Crossing arms
• Tapping a foot
• Rigid posture
• Throwing hands up
• Rubbing the brow as if to ward off a headache
• Running a hand through the hair
• Fidgeting


“What are you doing here?” She asked.

“What are you doing here?” Mel crossed her arms over her chest and huffed.

The above is merely an example of a few emotions. I try to employ this strategy with most emotions to avoid the dreaded he said, she said while not going overboard with dialogue tags.

P.S. The writers helping writers blog has some awesome blogs with examples for a variety of emotions. Check it out!


This blog post is part of the #AuthorToolboxBlogHop. This is a monthly blog hop hosted by @raimeygallant. Make sure to stop by the other author blog posts in this month’s blog hop to fill up your author toolbox!

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12 thoughts on “Dialogue tags and ‘show, not tell’ #WriterWednesday #AuthorToolBoxHop #AmWriting #WritingTips

  1. Adam says:

    I’ve heard some propone that the word “said” is more akin to a grammatical symbol like a period or comma, though I don’t know my own opinion on the matter just yet.
    Action tags are definitely a viable option, though I think the biggest piece of the puzzle is using a variety of techniques. Another possibility is watching for natural opportunities for characters to cite each other’s names in dialogue. For example, many of us say “Hi (name)” when we greet someone.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. elle marr says:

    Oooh my nemesis, too! Dialogue tags and showing vs. telling. They each seem like such simple rules, but they were difficult to become aware of in the moment – I won’t pretend that I’ve come close to mastering them! Thanks for sharing and reminding me to watch out!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. TD Storm says:

    Very clear examples. Having dialogue tags carry the weight of the emotional charge of the words is definitely a bad idea. So, yeah, no growling. And no sloppy adverb add-ons. I mostly find “said” to be invisible until it starts piling up too frequently on a page. So I’d agree that stage business can be the solution, and I like how you’ve shown the revisions here. But I’m also a little wary of clichéd stage business. Francine Prose has some good advice in Reading like a Writer on avoiding overly-typical gestures for characters.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Iola Goulton says:

    He said/she said have their place … but original action beats are better. And I totally hear you on characters growling or barking! Fine if the character is a shapeshifter, but it should rarely be used otherwise.

    Liked by 1 person

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