how to use dialogue tags

How To Write Perfect Dialogue – Part 1: Dialogue Tags

This is the first in a two-part series on writing perfect dialogue. Check out the second part ‘5 Simple and Effective Ways to Write Powerful Dialoguehere.

What is a Dialogue Tag?

A ‘dialogue tag’, or ‘dialogue attribution’, is the phrase that occurs before, after or in the middle of a piece of dialogue. It is made up of words such as ‘he said/she said’ or ‘he asked/she asked’ and indicates who is speaking.

A dialogue tag serves several very specific purposes:

  • To clearly indicate who is speaking
  • To make sections more digestible by breaking up speech
  • To allow the writer to slot in action or reaction to the dialogue
  • To vary pace and tension

For such a small phrase it can, however, create a disproportionate number of problems.

There are four essential techniques to effectively using dialogue tags:

  1. Keep Dialogue Tags Simple

Get the dialogue tags right and they become invisible – your eyes skip over them easily and you barely even notice they are there. This is exactly what you want; the dialogue flows, it isn’t held up or halted by overbearing adjectives and attention is not drawn to the wrong part of the sentence i.e. the dialogue tag.

How do we make the dialogue tag invisible?

We keep it incredibly simple:

‘How did you do that?’ Anna asked.

‘It isn’t in there,’ he said.

He said/she said and he asked/she asked are two of the most commonly used dialogue tags in fiction.

‘He clamoured’, ‘she hissed’, ‘he growled’ are less common and more noticeable. Use overly descriptive verbs sparingly in dialogue tags. They risk lessening the impact of the dialogue, potentially slow up what could be fast-paced, exciting exchanges and they stop the story from moving forward smoothly.

How do we avoid overly descriptive dialogue tags?

At its very simplest, the reader should be able to infer the tone of the dialogue from three key areas C-A-R:

  1. Context of the words in dialogue and narrative
  2. Actions of the characters whilst speaking
  3. Reactions of the characters to the dialogue

If you find yourself needing to use descriptive dialogue tags consider rewriting until the emotion of the situation is apparent through the tone of the conversation and the actions and reactions.

For example:

‘Don’t do it,’ he said angrily.

Could just as easily work as:

He slammed his fist down on the open book. ‘Don’t do it.’

If it seems unavoidable that you need to use a descriptive tag – keep it conservative:

‘Don’t go,’ he whispered.

Avoid the ones that feel melodramatic:

‘Don’t go,’ he wept.

Stick to dialogue tags that make sense. Ask yourself whether it is possible to ‘hiss’ something?

  1. Avoid Using Adverbs In Your Dialogue Tags

In the words of Stephen King ‘While to write adverbs is human, to write “he said/she said” is divine.’ He also says that ‘the road to hell is paved with adverbs’ and almost pleads with us in ‘On Writing’ when he says, ‘I insist that you use the adverb in dialogue attribution only in the rarest and most special of occasions … and not even then, if you can avoid it.’

The age-old adage of ‘show don’t tell’ applies here. If something is being done angrily, show us that instead of telling us that in the dialogue tag. If you find yourself explaining too much in the dialogue – apply the C-A-R rule here (Context, Actions, Reactions).

  1. Use the Name of the Speaker

Although keeping it simple is a great tactic in dialogue, make sure you don’t over use he said/she said.

A good rule of thumb is that when the dialogue exchange is short – keep dialogue tags only to the first two lines of the people speaking. Keep up the clarity with one character addressing the other by their name:

‘What’s the matter?’

‘I just don’t want you to do it, Adam.’

‘Why not? Give me one good reason.’

By slotting in the person’s name, it keeps the conversation clear and easy to follow.

Be careful not to do this too often and only include the person’s name when it sounds natural in the conversation.

  1. Use Action to Replace Dialogue Tags

A tag or a name in every line can quickly become exhausting and unnatural. Find that exact balance otherwise dialogue exchanges can quickly become confusing. An effective alternative to tags, that helps to break up long speeches and vary the rhythm of the conversation, is to use action to replace the tags in the dialogue.

Why is Using Action a Good Alternative to Dialogue Tags?

  • It gives us a very good opportunity to “show” to the reader rather than “tell”
  • Action helps to break up the speech
  • Action gives us physical details
  • Action gives us physical context for the reader to begin to imagine the scene

‘It’s this way.’ Sam heaved open the oak door.

‘Is that you?’ Sam turned to the door.

Always keep your use of tags in mind – although essential to smooth-flowing conversation – less is definitely more. Dialogue tags should be handled with care; most importantly they should be underplayed, but not underused.

Have you read our article on ‘Powerful Dialogue’? Check it out here.