WTFYC: Dialogue, Tags vs Cues

One of my favorite things in writing is crafting beautiful dialogue. When I started writing, I often found myself overusing dialogue tags rather than using cues (more on the difference later). It’s fun to find new ways to say “said / says”, but it’s not always necessary. To kick off WTFYC, I’ll be giving a short lesson on the difference between tags and cues. 

What’s the difference between a tag and a cue?

A tag tells the reader someone has said something. This is where you’ll see all of those wonderful tags such as said, whispered, murmured, chuckled, growled, etc. Truly, the list can go on forever. The use of dialogue tags also tell the reader who is speaking, directly.

– Examples:

  • She said, “Wow!”
  • Mark replied, “Of course.
  • “I agree,” Jane spoke.

A cue uses action to show the reader who is speaking. This is where you’ll find all of the flowery language without using tags. For a lot of writers (and readers) this is preferred, as the reader is not as likely to be pulled away from the pages. Using cues instead of tags can give more insight into a character’s personality. I’ll use the same examples above, but this time I will use cues.

– Examples:

  • Her voice was filled with the excitement of a thousand bells as her eyes widened. “Wow!”
  • Mark’s voice was hushed, and he turned his eyes away. “Of course.”
  • “I agree.” Jane balled her hands into fists and gritted her teeth.

Which is better to use?

A lot of writers have different voices in their writing. I always say use what works best for you. My preference, however, is to use cues and then throw in tags when necessary or to create higher value. By using cues, as seen above, we are shown what the character is doing rather than being told, as a tag does.

Quick Tip:

Avoid using names when writing dialogue. In the real world, we often don’t call someone by their name unless it’s for something important.

– Example:

Allison smiled. “I’m really excited for the new movie!”

“Allison, I hate the sound of that movie,” James said.

– Example 2, change:

Allison smiled, “I’m really excited for the new movie!”

“I hate the sound of that movie,” James said.

The reader already knows James is speaking to Allison, and in a real world situation, it would be unlikely James would be stating her name.

Note: This doesn’t mean never have characters say each others names. Only do it when necessary.

In Conclusion:

Use cues to show the reader with action who is speaking and give insight into the personality of the character. Use tags to tell the reader who is speaking.

Prompt:

As promised, at the end of every WTFYC lesson there will be a small challenge. This is meant to use what we’ve talked about.

In the comments, please show us the difference between tags and cues. First, write some short dialogue between two characters using tags. Then, use the same dialogue and use cues instead. Let us know if you like the difference!

– Example:

1. Mary sighed, “But I don’t want to go to the store!”

“We have to go,” Josh said.

She cried, “Fine, but you have to buy me chocolate!”

2. Mary pressed her lips together. “But I don’t want to go to the store!”

“We have to go.” Josh placed his hands on his hips and narrowed his eyes.

She let out a deep sigh and crossed her arms over her chest before looking away from him. “Fine, but you have to buy me chocolate.”

Thank you for participating in this week’s WTFYC. Feel free to share on social media using #WTFYCChat

Click here to see all of the WTFYC posts.

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