Dialogue Tags: Hack ‘Em off in Your Flash Fiction Stories

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One of the areas of writing I’ve always struggled with is dialogue. To use an idiom with a different weight to it these days: I avoid dialogue like the plague, just not cliches.

So when I normally do my throat-clearing by saying I’m just a guy with opinions on writing and what I like to read as a reader, this is of particular import here, as perhaps my “endings” are the only thing I’m more insecure about when it comes to writing than dialogue. But I’ll save that for a different post.

Dialogue in a longer story is difficult because it’s hard to write organic dialogue, like a real conversation two people would have. But also, nobody wants to read conversations between two normal people, right? If you took the latter too literally, it would be riddled with cliches, filler words like “ums” and “uhs,” and worst of all, probably wouldn’t be that interesting.

On the other hand, Aaron Sorkin-level snappy, witty dialogue, which is nothing like how most normal people talk, reads well, but isn’t easy to write, and at times, may not be appropriate for your characters. We’re not all writing The West Wing here.

Now take that tightrope walk, and cut hundreds of words, and try to introduce interesting, organic dialogue into a flash fiction piece.

Again, I almost never include dialogue in my flash fiction pieces because dialogue is hard to incorporate well.

However, I see a lot of writers do this, and even more daring, they make dialogue the entire flash fiction piece, telling the story through dialogue. An entire story, no matter the size, through dialogue is a rough ask. It necessarily restricts you and the reader. Think of it literally: We’re both stuck now in the parameters of the speech bubble. Instead of using snappy sentences, it allows a writer to use exposition in dialogue to move the story forward; I see it as almost a loophole in that way.

Additionally, only using dialogue is a good way to get into a bad habit of using unnecessarily diverse dialogue tags, like “snarled,” “replied,” “exclaimed,” and so on.

Nothing will take me out of a story — or more to the point, it often won’t even pull me in to be able to be pulled out — more than to see it’s only dialogue, and then those tags that are anything but “said.” Said works. Use said. That’s my dialogue advice from someone terrified of using dialogue.

In fact, by definition, flash fiction is short, and it’s unlikely you have more than two characters in the story, and if there are more, they’re perhaps peripheral at best. So if it’s a scene of dialogue between only two characters, I’m liable to hack off the “said” tags, too. I tend to go more raw and minimalist in my writing, though. It’s what I think of as the Cormac McCarthy style (and I have no idea if he’s one of the original people behind such a way of writing dialogue). A lot of his books, like his 2006 book, The Road, uses this style. Overusing it, like anything else in writing, can get confusing for the reader. Likewise, using too many of those tags can confuse (and insult) the reader.

… in other words, like a lot of writing advice, it depends. But my general point-of-view when it comes to reading flash fiction is that the stories able to pull off dialogue of any kind are few and far between, and the ones able to make an entire flash fiction piece dialogue work is virtually nonexistent, like being able to find an interview with Cormac McCarthy.

What do you think about dialogue, both as a writer and as a reader? What kind of dialogue do you like to read? How do you feel about tags?

2 thoughts

  1. I agree with dialogue being difficult to incorporate into a story. But it can be effective when done properly. Dialogue can give insight to characters and whatnot. It’s not a must or anything, but it can be good filler if you’re stuck. Also, agree about tags. Either it’s said or nothing at all. Keep it simple. Nice reference to Cormac. The Road was awesome though All the Pretty Horses is my favorite of his. Nice post, neph.

    Liked by 1 person

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