How to Use 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.
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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