Dialogue Tags

DEFINITION: A Dialogue Tag lets the reader know which character spoke/is speaking. These are words like: said, asked, yelled, demanded, screamed, mumbled, etc. The “tag” can go before or after the quotation.

You can download a PDF list of Dialogue Tags here: www.readwritethink.org/files/resources/lesson…/dialogue_tag.pdf.

My advice with Dialogue Tags is simple, straightforward, and easy.

The tag should usually (but not always) come AFTER the quotation. It just works and reads better that way. Read a few dialogue passages (by different authors) and see how what you like/what works for you.

Putting a tag in the middle of dialogue spoken by one character can also be effective, though too much of it will slow the story down and give the sense of “too many interruptions.” I like the tag in the middle because it adds a pause and makes sure the reader knows who is speaking before the speaker is too far into the monologue. EX: “Let’s not get ahead of ourselves,” Beth said, “or else the reader may not know which one of us is speaking.”

Do not use adverbs. Adverbs are the call sign of a lazy writer. If the character was angry, make that anger evident by what he said—not by writing, “Stop!” he said angrily. Instead, write: “Do that again and your index finger will bend in all the wrong places,” he said.

Keep tags short! This is just a personal preference—in no way a rule—but I get annoyed when there is always additional information “tagged onto the tag.” There’s nothing wrong with it exactly and I do it myself sometimes, but I just don’t think the dialogue tag is really the place to provide any information other than who was talking.

When possible, SKIP the dialogue tag altogether. If you don’t need one, don’t use one. You won’t always need a tag if only two people are in the conversation: once we have the rhythm, you can drop a tag here and there. Also, the reader might be able to tell who said “it” based solely on what was said, the tone, etc. Be minimalist with the tags.

Use “said” or “asked” 95% of the time. “But why?” you ask. “Those words are so common that no one will notice them!” And to that, I say, “Exactly.” The beauty of the words “said” and “asked” is that we do not notice them—they are like punctuation—they serve their job but do not call attention. That’s the way a tag should be.

All of the above go to one main point: we don’t want to notice the tag. We want to know who was speaking and concentrate on what was said. The tag is there for functionality—not to show off your prose. If you are showing off your prose with your dialogue tags, you might actually be showing that you can’t write good dialogue. I find tags like “yelled,” “shouted,” “screamed,” “pined,” “retorted,” “exclaimed,” etc. to be distracting and annoying. Again, the dialogue should carry the message of HOW it was said. Try changing all of your tags to “said” or “asked” and see how much better it flows (you’ll still want to use those other tags occasionally though). Make sure your dialogue does the work instead of the tag. Really. Give it a shot.

Dialogue – Even Better Than the Real Thing

Great dialogue is not realistic dialogue. Great dialogue is better. We all know that realistic dialogue is boring. People just aren’t that clever on the spot (especially when saying “Hello” and normal pleasantries). So don’t write that stuff. Skip it. Nobody wants to read it.

Great dialogue seems real though it probably isn’t actually realistic. Consider the “what I should have said, was _______” moments in your own life. What you actually said was okay, but later on, you realized the perfect comeback or response—and that’s what your dialogue should be: the best version of what your characters could say.

I’m not suggesting that every bit of dialogue be a zinger or end with an exclamation point. Each scene needs highs and lows. If every statement has a “this is life or death” tone, then none of them will actually carry that tone.

Listening to real people talk is good because it will help you pick up on different speech styles and rhythms, but don’t mimic it exactly. Make it better (more witty, more subtle or dramatic, etc.). Like everything else, this comes with practice. Have fun!

NOTE: Some authors are better than others. I’m a big fan of Nick Hornby’s dialogue. If you’ve never read A Long Way Down or High Fidelity—do yourself a favor and pick one up.