How to Use Dialogue Tags

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Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are the cues that indicate who is doing the talking in written dialogue. I’ve underlined all the dialogue tags in the following example:

“Richard, do I have a mark on my face? It really hurts,” Tommy asked.

“Nope, nothing,” Richard replied, “I thought I hit you on the shoulder.”

“Right here. Not here or here so much. Right here,” said Tommy.

“Nope. Ship-shape,” Richard reassured him. “Waitress, can I get that shrimp cocktail I saw in the glass case?”

“Yep,” the waitress answered. “And what can I get…Wow! What happened to your face?”

“I knew it!” Tommy exclaimed

Dialogue tags are often necessary, but there is a great difference of opinion about how such tags are best used.

The tendency among English and writing teachers, especially in the younger grades, is to encourage creativity and variety in the use of dialogue tags. Said and asked are boring and bland, they say. Try to mix it up and use the tags to help the reader understand not only who is speaking, but how they are speaking. Teachers in this camp would like the example above because it includes more descriptive tags like “replied,” “reassured,” and “exclaimed.”

A quick Google search for dialogue tag lists produced several ready-to-print reference lists for young writers. They all include tags like:

admitted, agreed, barked, bellowed, blurted, boasted, croaked, declared, drawled, echoed, exclaimed, faltered, groaned, grumbled, hissed, howled, insisted, interrupted, muttered, nagged, offered, pleaded, quipped, raged, shrieked, sighed, snarled, sobbed, stammered, thundered, warned, whined, whispered, yelped

Of course there’s nothing wrong with lists like this — in fact, I may create one of my own — but there’s another perspective on the use of dialogue tags that I think is worth mentioning.

Frankly, I don’t like creative dialogue tags. I like them boring and inconspicuous. In most cases, I prefer said and asked — if any dialogue tag is necessary at all.

I don’t want interesting, conspicuous dialogue tags because they tend to draw attention to the writer’s style rather than to what’s more important — the dialogue itself. The focus should be on the words being spoken. If the dialogue itself doesn’t communicate tone and emotion, it’s okay to give the reader some help with a descriptive dialogue tag like shrieked, sobbed, or boasted. Just try to stay out of the way. Don’t worry about using said or asked too much. If you only use them when they are necessary, and the conversation you are recording is interesting enough, no one will even notice them. Which is exactly the way it should be.

My favorite writers are those who use just enough dialogue tags to make it clear who is doing the speaking. Cormac McCarthy, author of The Road and No Country for Old Men, is famous for hardly using them at all. In fact, he skips quotation marks too, which can be a bit confusing sometimes:

What is it Papa?

Nothing. We’re okay. Go to sleep.

We’re going to be okay, aren’t we Papa?

Yes. We are.

And nothing bad is going to happen to us.

That’s right.

Because we’re carrying the fire.

Yes. Because we’re carrying the fire.

~from The Road

This is a simple dialogue between a boy and his father. There are no dialogue tags at all (nor quotation marks), yet it’s perfectly clear who is doing the talking.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that there’s only one right way to do this. It’s a matter of style. I certainly don’t recommend McCarthy’s stylistic avoidance of quotation marks. My preference is to use as few dialogue tags as possible, paying more attention to the words being spoken. When they are necessary, keep them simple unless some descriptive tag is really necessary.

It’s really the showing not telling principle at work here. Allowing your dialogue to speak for itself is normally better than telling the reader how words were spoken via evocative dialogue tags.

*****

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About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

  1. Lora Shouse
    Lora Shouse04-18-2016

    I have an issue with going too long without dialogue tags in some cases. I have read several books lately where I have come across stretches of dialogue without any tags, and will be going along fine with that for a while, but suddenly come across a section where the dialogue seems to have somehow gotten misaligned so that I suddenly can’t tell which character said a particular line, and once that has happened it is difficult to get back on track with who is saying what again – sort of like the old comedy routine where two people keep repeating:

    “Yes he did.”

    “No he didn’t.”

    and after too many repetitions they confuse themselves and suddenly start reversing their positions. Another issue is that I don’t see how you can go very long without dialogue tags if the conversation involves three or more people.

    However, I have been a big fan of the word ‘said’ since first grade. When I learned to read that word and could thus read dialogue for the first time, I began to find reading interesting.

  2. plicketycat
    plicketycat03-08-2016

    An issue I have with eliminating descriptive tags in preference to revamping the dialogue or adding action is that 1) it collides with reducing word count (along with banning adverbs), and 2) often interrupts the flow or intent of the dialog even worse than using a maligned descriptive verb.

    For example:
    “Come here,” she purred. (succinct, describes her voice and tone, and implies sex)
    “Come here,” she said sexily (lands you in adverb jail)
    “Come here, I want to have sex with you,” she said. (who says that normally?)
    “Come here,” she said, telling him she wanted to have sex. (redundant — said/tell both speech verbs)

    Another example:
    “Look over there,” she whispered. (succinct)
    “Look over there,” she said quietly. (adverb jail)
    “Shh, look over there,” she said. (only implies she is whispering)
    “Look over there,” she said in his ear. (only implies she is whispering)
    “Look over there,” she said, whispering in his ear. (redundant)

    I agree that creative tags should be limited and are most useful in describing how something is said when dialog or flow would suffer with more ‘showing’, to include interjected tags between sentences or clauses.

    Descriptive verbs (and adverbs) exist in our vocabularly for a reason and shouldn’t be automatically smitten from our writing when they actually make more sense than bland/boring/common, especially when they reduce tedium and bloating (and, ahem, excessive profanity to show anger – guilty!), as long as the meaning is clear and they are not used as a crutch for lazy writing.

  3. Rob McBride
    Rob McBride01-21-2016

    W O W !

    Today has been an epiphany for me.

    After writing several books and countless stories, I finally have relief from having to find an alternative to “says” and “said”…

    Hallelujah!

    A search on how to properly punctuate dialogue and I found your wonderful article on how to “better” punctuate dialogue without overusing alternatives or modifying the way people talk with adverbs.

    Let the dialogue speak for itself.

    So simple, so easy.

    I am free!

    : )

  4. Etienne
    Etienne02-03-2015

    “Said” and “asked” are definitely not boring and bland. In point of fact, when reading dialogue, the reader’s brain automatically interprets them as punctuation, and takes no notice. Any expert on dialogue will tell you that.

    On the other hand, non-standard dialogue tags (moaned, croaked, sneered, and others too numerous to mention) have the unintended consequence of knocking the reader out of the story, and that is NOT a good thing.

    You have only to read the best-selling Spenser novels of the late Robert B. Parker to understand this. Parker was a master at writing spare, elegant, and often eloquent dialogue, and he used “said” almost exclusively. He seldom even resorted to “asked,” even when a question was being posed.

    I offer this quote from an expert source on dialogue tags:

    “But for the most part, with some exceptions, you don’t need fancy verbs to tell how something was spoken. You can use “said” a thousand times, without its being as noticeable as a habit of substituting other words. By the time your characters have chuckled, screeched, murmured, sneered, bellowed, and hissed their way through half a chapter, the readers will be wincing at every quote. You’ll have a kind of written tic, distracting to the reader and impossible to ignore.”

    To me, novels in which non-standard tags outnumber said and asked, are unreadable.

  5. Jas
    Jas01-27-2013

    I enjoy reading your blog and would appreciate if you could add pin it button.
    Great work , thank you 🙂

    • Brian Wasko
      Brian Wasko01-27-2013

      Will do, JAS. I have a Pinterest page too, if you’d like to follow: pinterest.com/writeathome

  6. Angie Gergely
    Angie Gergely09-29-2012

    I’m with you. I don’t care for line after line of “he said” and “she said”. With correct paragraph breaks and good dialogue, tags can be used sparingly. I just like the flow better that way 🙂

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