Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Dialogue Tags - What They Are and How to Use Them Properly

Guest post by Tracy Culleton

Dialogue tags are the words used after a character has spoken, such as "he said", and "she whispered".

The most popular tag by far, and with good reason, is 'said'. It's okay to use 'said' frequently. Despite what you might think, it doesn't get repetitious for the reader.

Dialogue tags are very important as they're used to show which character is speaking at any given time.

Check out the following very simple example:

"I think we should go this way," said Sarah.

"You're right," said James.

"The other way might be better," said Daniel.

"No, I think Sarah's right," said Dawn.

(Note that the text read 'said Sarah' (or whoever) rather than 'Sarah said'. You can use either, depending on what sounds right and works for you. But if you're using pronouns, always put them first, e.g. 'he said' rather than 'said he', unless you're using 'said he' for comic effect.)

Now, I'd be the first to admit that the example given is a bit flat and boring to read - you'd never do that in real life.

Which leads me on nicely to the trick of using action to vary the tags. So:

"I think we should go this way," Sarah said, pointing.

James nodded. "You're right."

"The other way might be better," Daniel said, determination etched on his face.

"No, I think Sarah's right," Dawn said.

Do you see how including action brought the scene to life a little? It was much easier to visualise what was going on - even though we still have very little information.

You might also note that we lost the dialogue tag for James entirely, but yet it's still perfectly clear that it's he who is speaking.

For long sentences, get your tag in early so that readers know immediately who's speaking. So: "I wonder," said Sarah, "if we could try building a raft out of those trees."Rather than:"I wonder if we could try building a raft out of those trees," said Sarah.

The invisible dialogue tag

Often, particularly if there are only two people speaking in the scene, you can leave out many - if not most - tags, and the reader will be able to figure out who's speaking anyway. It's as if the tag is there, but invisible. It's understood.

For example (say it's already been made clear that Claire and Darren are in the scene):

"Oh you always do that!" said Claire.

"I do not!"

"You do. Every single time."

"I don't, and I resent you saying that."

So, even though there's only one tag for four sentences, we're perfectly able to tell who's speaking each time. For long pieces of dialogue, see if you can minimise the number of dialogue tags. The best way to do this is to first of all try to have it that there are only two characters in the scene. Only do this if it suits the story. Story is king, and all has to serve that. But if you can get it down to two characters, do. That will, as explained above, already help the reader keep track, even if you only have a tag every so often.

The other trick is to use description instead of tags. Not only does this cut down on the number of tags, but it helps the reader visualise what's going on. For example:

Claire shook her hair back in frustration, "I'm serious, Darren. I can't bear it when you see her."~

Darren raised his eyes to heaven, with a God-give-me-patience expression. "There's nothing to worry about, Claire. I'm totally over her. I'm with you now, after all."

Claire shook her head. "That seems too easy."

Darren sighed and strode over to her. He put his hands on her shoulders. "You are the only woman for me, I swear."

You'll note also that each of the characters used the other's name. That's a good trick too, as long as it's totally natural - only do it where people would genuinely use the other person's name.

Alternatives to 'said' as a dialogue tag

Although 'said' is the most common tag, you can use others. For example, use 'asked' if there's a question. And sometimes it's worthwhile to use other tags. In the above example, I could have done this:

"Oh you always do that!" said Claire.

"I do not!"

"You do."

"Well, I might have done it once or twice," Darren conceded.

You see here that for four lines, I only used two tags, one of which was 'said' and the other of which was 'conceded' - that works because it fits here. You can also use tags like 'whispered', 'shouted', 'agreed', and 'yelled' as long as they're used in moderation. However, tags such as: 'ejaculated', 'bragged', 'declared' and 'exclaimed should never be used. They're just too purple-prose and they're falling into the trap of telling-not-showing.'

Finally, absolutely never use tags like grinned, laughed or smiled. You cannot speak and smile at the same time, or speak and laugh at the same time.

The last thing to be careful of when you're using dialogue tags is adverbs. As writers we have to be careful of overusing adverbs, and adverbs with dialogue tags are no exception.

So, try to minimise your use of such tags as:

*... he said softly

*... he shouted angrily

*... she said wistfully.

Try instead to show the character speaking softly, or shouting angrily, or speaking wistfully by using description. One last suggestion would be to study printed books for their use of dialogue tags.

Best-selling Irish author Tracy Culleton is passionate about helping people achieve their dream of writing success. Her comprehensive website teaching you all you need to know about how to write a novel is well worth a visit, as is her website reviewing and critiquing the various novel writing software products available.

What dialogue tags do you use?


  1. great examples.
    I use action in my dialogue tags. One thing I have to deal with in the revision stage is lifting out some of it and reducing to 'said'. One I've found to add some action is to have characters eat, or have coffee (or other beverage) while they talk.

    The biggest tip I have is put a lot of this into the first draft and it is much easier to remove or refine than it is to add. At least for me.

  2. Thank you for writing this comprehensive entry. I admit that sometimes I get confused with invisible dialogue tags. I think one thing that's also key is to using short, one-liner phrases, like in your examples. Readers follow along visually when the conversation becomes the action.

  3. "Comic AFFECT?" I hope you said that fo comic EFFECT. :-)

  4. @ The Realist?

    Thank you for bringing this to my attention. I don't always take the time to edit guest posts as they are supposed to be edited. I guess I will edit everything in the future.

  5. Elmore Leonard: "Never use a verb other than 'said' to carry dialogue. The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in. But 'said' is far less intrusive than 'grumbled,' 'gasped,' 'cautioned,' 'lied.' I once noticed Mary McCarthy ending a line of dialogue with 'she asseverated,' and had to stop reading and go to the dictionary."


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