Friday, July 8, 2011

How to Use Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are the labels we use to indicate who is speaking: he said, she asked, they exclaimed, Lyn pontificated. The problem with dialogue tags is they are a tell rather than a show. They tell the reader who is speaking. They can also distract from the story like powerlines in a photo. For that reason it’s common to hear advice to keep the tags to a minimum.

Some writers will only use ‘said’ for their tags. At all cost they will avoid all other variations. Maybe they might allow the odd ‘ask’ or ‘reply’ in, but nothing else. Other writers will dress their tags up in froufrou: he instructed, she explained. The options are endless. Often these kind of tags are redundancies. They don’t add anything that’s already obvious in the dialogue.

Apart from the simple ‘said’ tags, I will use ones that add a dimension that’s not already evident in the speech. For example: ‘I hate you,’ he laughed. ‘Get down,’ she whispered.

Sometimes I’ll avoid the tag altogether by describing the character’s action before or after the dialogue. For example: Bob scratched his nose. ‘I don’t get it.’ In this case the need for the tag is eliminated by the action before the dialogue.

Of course, sometimes I let it get away from me. I forget to ask myself why I’m adding in a word and froufrou abounds. For that reason I love my critique partners – along with multiple edits.

Other than the standard ‘said’ tags, what do you use? Have you ever seen or tried an unusual method of dialogue tagging? How successful do you think it was?

A big thanks to Mark Noce for the inspiration for this post. Please visit his great blog here.

This weekend is my birthday weekend. My hubby may be whisking me away to an exotic location (or maybe a winery). Virtual cake for all! OR, if you’d like to make your own, such as the one in the picture, pick up a recipe from Dezz in the Kitchen


  1. Happy birthday! And thanks for the reminder to keep the tags to a minimum. I find they get in the way of flow, too. No one needs to chop up their writing!

  2. I describe the persons actions almost every single time. For some reason the other day I was wondering if I should use tags once in a while. Thanks for reminding me how they take you out of the story with telling.

  3. Happy birthday, Lynda!!! Want some Hot Tamles?
    I'm getting better at omitting tags, but I still use ones other than said now and then. Just not 'asked' when the dialogue is a question. That is redundant!

  4. Happy, happy birthday to ya this weekend! Woo! Nice hubby. :)

    I used to get quite creative with my tags, and have pared them down to MOSTLY said and asked. Not totally. Like adverbs, I try to use them only if absolutely needed.

  5. I am amazed. Your posts always address a much-encountered challenge in writing and your answers succinctly offer needed answers. Thank you so much for this post and all your others. Your W.I.P. It blog is my go-to for all things writing. Thanks, Lynda!

  6. Oh, one of my all-time favorite sentences is ""Hello," I threatened."

    I just love love love it. So simple. So much punch packed into three little words!

    Anyway, I try to only use dialogue tags to clarify who is speaking. I will also add actions around the text, but not when they conversation is more important.

    I'm always very proud of myself when I can successfully swap out a 'he screamed' or 'he shouted' with simple a exclamation point. It boosts my writerly ego.

  7. Happy Birthday! :)

    Recently, I've tried to remember to use actions before the dialogue instead of tags at the end of it. I also try to drop the froufrou sentences: it's so tempting to use complicated words instead of just "said" or nothing at all. :P

  8. OH I hope you get whizzed to an exotic location with a winery and real cake!! HAPPY BIRTHDAY!!!!!! I hope you have a special weekend!!

    I do remember being a serial user of "asked" when it was completely unnecessary as the sentence ended in a question mark. Never again! LOL! Take care

  9. ah, I hate it when writers use just SAY because it's extremely monotonous, and it also looks horrible when translated :) I love it when there's EXPLAINED, INFORMED, ASKED, BEGGED ... After all nobody writes that good dialogues that these tags can distract their readers :)

    Oooh, it's your 25th B-day already? But you look only 23! :)
    Hope hubs will make you a cake prettier than this chocolate-raspberry of mine from the pic :) It's actually the first cake I made for money and I think it's rather ugly :) even though the customer didn't complain.

  10. Happy B'Day, Lynda! Hope you have a great time.

    I try to stay with "said" whenever I DO use a tag. Otherwise, I agree with you totally: actions speak louder than words.

    Hey, when you get back, could you address a related issue for me? (I'll send you a cake)
    My problem is this: I get confused about which to do first, the action or the words themselves. I understand chronological rules, but I've seen things done that don't make sense to me.
    There's that word again. RULES. Sheesh.

  11. I'm trying not to use tags at all and opt for action instead. But when I do, growled, snarled and hissed can come up along with the usual said, asked, replied and whispered.
    In my defence, most of my characters are animalistic. I think it perfectly reasonable for a snake-like creature to hiss his words. Or for a wolf-man to growl out a word or two.
    Though I cut out the laughed and (most of) the sighed tags and switched to description when I was informed that no one can laugh a word or sigh "Very well,"

    And happy birthday. ^_^

  12. When I was a high school senior, my English teacher gave me two handouts: 99 Ways To Say 'He Said' and 'Over 300 Ways To Say The Word Said.' When I started writing, I would get quite creative with my tags - I'd even pat myself on the back when I found the perfect one to describe my vision. But Stephen King's ON WRITING as well as reading more over the years helped me see the light. Now, like most, I only use them when the reader needs it to understand how a phrase was spoken.

    I just finished a MG/YA where the author was dialogue tag happy. It really slowed down the flow of the book; the 'rhythm' was off because the tags were too long. It helped me see the importance of using tags correctly (I'm finding a low syllable count is key).


  13. Happy birthday! I have a habit of putting action before the dialogue and dropping tags. I always thought it was a bad habit, but maybe it's not so bad after all! ;) The rules for dialogue tags absolutely confuzzle me.

  14. I try to include action with the dialogue so I can avoid a tag.

    Sally twisted her skirt in her hands and looked down. "I wouldn't have done it if I had known it would have upset you."

  15. Happy birthday to you! I try to let the action show who's speaking, but I also use a fair amount of tags when they're called for (and sometimes when not ... those get caught in the editing process). I agree that tags like "explained" and "clarified" are too often redundant with the dialogue and context.

  16. Interesting post. I never knew that those were called dialogue tags:O

  17. Happy, Happy Birthday!
    I'm afraid that one of my characters tends to snarl a lot. She's not a morning person;-)
    Other than that, I usually stick to said.

  18. I had someone once (editor) try to pull me in one direction with tags... I felt the writing began to lose my voice - yes my tags needed cleaning up and I hope I've found a happy middle ground. Time will tell. ;)

  19. oh and Happy birthday! and you have written this in a very simple easy to understand way ;)

  20. I've heard a lot of people say 'never use dialogue tags other than said' and, to be fair, a lot of very credible authors follow this rule. But I started paying attention to the books I love, and there are almost always varying dialogue tags. I've never really agreed with the 'said' rule. :) But I agree about the actions, sometimes they fit way better than a tag. :)

  21. 'They can also distract from the story like powerlines in a photo.'

    Elegant simile.

  22. Great post, Lynda. For me, I like simplicity. Said, asked, replied. Whispered is fine. But to me, when an author starts getting, as you say, "frou-frou" every other line just for the sake of being so... well, frou-frou... it throws me out of the story. Not to mention I believe it shows immaturity in the writing itself.

    Just my opinion, of course, but "said" is the old faithful for showing who is speaking, and that's it. Yes, it can be used for a certain effect: "The thing about dialogue tags," she said, "is that it's best to keep it simple." But otherwise I think we'd all be wise to stay away from the stuff that's too pretty; the point is to keep the reader in the story. They ARE the character going through our way cool plot, right?

  23. I like to mostly stick with the simple kinds - 'said', etc. But occasionally I will throw in a more descriptive one, i.e. "whispered".

  24. Great tips! I like the action-eliminating-tag method, particularly. I use that quite a bit. I might start using the reverse meaning method more, I kind of like it :)

    Sarah Allen
    (my creative writing blog)

  25. Sam smiled and held out a cupcake. "Happy birthday!" :D

  26. Emily, I chop up my writing all the time...but somehow I don't think that's what you mean ;)

    Emily, hope it helped

    Alex, Bring on the Hot Tamles!! I don't think I've ever had one.

    Carol, He is adorable!!!

    Pam, thanks :)

    McKenzie, simplicity has a way of packing a punch.

    Golden, it IS so tempting hehehe

    Old Kitty, I've already started into the homemade chocolate cake. YUM!

    Dezzy, nooooooooooooo, your cake is yum looking! Not ugly at all!

  27. I sometimes use something in the dialogue that defines who's speaking - like the other character's name. People DO use each other's names sometimes in real speech - so why not?

  28. GREAT post! I like your point about using it to illuminate something that wouldn't be obvious from the dialogue, like whispering when you'd expect a shout. That's a very good point.

    I use action tags a lot; I prefer it to dialogue tags. But I probably overuse them. :-)

    Happy Birthday! Enjoy your weekend!

  29. Bryce, I can't turn down cake... As for your problem re which comes first--action or dialogue. There is no rule except the rule of clarity and flow--along with the chronological rule you mentioned. If it's clear who is speaking then action can come after dialogue. If you prefer, you can show the action before or even in the middle of dialogue. Read your prose out loud. Get used to hearing the rhythm of your words. And remember, rules can be broken ;)

    Aldrea, your characters sound interesting!

    Paul, hahaha yep I was taught that as well when I was young. I'm not sure if it's a change in fashion or if we were simply taught the wrong thing (which wouldn't be a first).

    Madeline, I don't think there are any absolute rules for dialogue tags except use in moderation.

    Liza, and it keeps the reader in the story too.

    Emily, thanks

  30. Cinette, hahaha yep, my characters growl and scowl a lot. lol

    Michelle, yep, you have to use what works for you. And thanks :)

    Bethany, I sometimes think writers can take rules too far.

    Suze, thanks :)

    Alyssia, right. Froufrou has a way of tossing the reader out of the story. Anything that draws attention to itself will do that.

    Trisha, simplicity works.

    Sarah, I think it's good to experiment sometimes.

    Sam, excellent example. And the cupcake was scumptious. Thanks :)

    MorningAJ, yep, that works too.

    Ishta, I think as in all things, balance is key.

  31. Happy Birthday!

    I try to limit the use of tags in my dialogue, preferring to indicate who has spoken by their actions. If I do use a tag, I try to stick to said.

    A good test for dialogue is to remove everything else and see if it works on it's own.

    Ellie Garratt

  32. Said, asked, replied, whispered, muttered...Mostly those, I believe, though I'm not really sticking to any rule. I use actions when I can, but I feel that they sometimes can get a little too much as well.Also, when in the middle of a dialogue, I often use nothing at all, just


    Happy birthday! :D

  33. CAKE! I mean, uh, happy birthday!

    My challenge is to make sure I don't use dialogue tags all the time--cutting them out's usually a feature in my revision.

  34. Happy Birthday Lynda. May all your wildest dreams come true when you blow out the candles.
    I try to have the minimum of tags. If its obvious who is speaking, nix it. And I've read that "said" is invisible to the reader, they dont see it and therefore dont tire of it. It is just a quick tool of clarity.

  35. I forgot about the option to use action sentences instead of tags. That's a great idea. I subconsciously use pretty much any tag except for "said" now, and critique partners report that a big variety is extremely distracting. So it's nice to see there's another option, too! :)

  36. Happy Birthday, Lynda.
    I am a big one on Froufrou tags. I like to use all kinds of dialogue tags: from he said, to he screamed, and he sighed, and he cried, she hissed, she whispered..... I don't know if its a good or a bad habit.

  37. Hey, hey, nice post! You read my mind:) I often debate with myself how to best display dialog and have tried quite a few different ways. Artistically I like stripped down dialog, even bordering on experimental, i.e. no quotes, just letting the voice of the character come through. But practically most readers I've gotten feedback from seem to prefer the mundane, and for simplicity sake I can't blame them. Nonetheless, it's always groovy to try new things. Thanks for all the info:)

  38. Happy Birthday.
    In a recent critique group, we talked about using "said" instead of a lot of other ones. I like your example of how not to use one. There are plenty of ways to work around the boring "said," but it's pretty useful too.

  39. I try to avoid 'he said' 'she said' if it's not necessary. Otherwise, I'll try to set up the scene so that's it's obvious who's talking when.

    I noticed in one of the books I read recently, The Book of Night Women, they used Em dashes instead of quotations and no attribution most of the time, but it was obvious who was doing the talking.

  40. Happy birthday, again!

    I try use tags as little as possible - just enough that the reader can keep track of the speaker. And I know we've been told to use "said" for the most part, but I have to admit, when I read a book with "said" all the time, it becomes as distracting as trying some variation of it every line. I do mix it up a little. Hopefully, I've struck a good balance.

  41. I try to avoid tags because I don't like to read them.

    A very happy birthday, Lynda, and many, many more.

  42. Happy birthday Lynda! Hope you have an awesome weekend!

    I'm guilty of, on occasion, overusing the superfluous word or two when using dialogue tags e.g. 'he yelled', 'she cried'. I've started to wean myself off these and show rather than tell, but it's a long road to travel.

  43. I'll admit that I use a few other tags besides "said." That said (ha!), I think "said" is the best one to use because it's invisible. As a reader, I don't want to get tripped up on the "pontificated" and "remarked" tags. I want to be able to enjoy the story.

  44. Hope you have a wonderful birthday at your romantic getaway:) Thanks for the tag info, very useful tips as usual:)

  45. I try to vary tags and fortunately my critique group lets me know if they are over or underdone. Great post.

  46. I mis it up. If there are only two people talking then I try not to use tags as its obvious who's saying what. If I do use tags I mostly use he said she said, but mix things up with occasional he interjected, or she interrupted, or he said with a straight face, trying not to laugh.

  47. Happy Belated Birthday - Thanks for the post about Dialogue Tags. It is something I struggle with. I do try to show rather than tell.

  48. Happy belated bithday, Linda!

    Thanks for the reminder on dialoque tags.

  49. Lol I tried tag avoidance once. ONly to have four out of six crit partners tell me to put them in.

    I've found that tags become necessary as more people interact in a scene.


  50. I have to watch those old world "ly" words in my tags. But I'm getting better about that.

    Happy Birthday!

  51. Happy Belated Birthday...I used to write flowery dialogue tags before, but now, thankfully, no more :)

  52. "Belated Happy Birthday," I tapped onto my keyboard to be sent in an electronic way that I did not understand.

    I do like dialog tagged with other action unrelated to what is directly being said, but perhaps that could be interpreted as a reaction to the conversation at hand. For example: "Sure, I'd love for your mother to join us on our vacation." He sawed at his steak with intense vigor.

    Tossing It Out

  53. Ellie, Your test is a great tip!

    Marieke, yep, it's about balance as well as not drawing attention to itself.

    Amie, the cake was GOOD.

    Jessie, great point that 'said' is invisible. So true.

    Callie, yes, and the last thing we want to do is distract our readers.

    Rachna, try Ellie's test-- cut out the tags altogether and see if it still works.

    Mark, I think it's good to branch out on occasion and test the waters for the sake of creativity. Sometimes it works, other times it doesn't. But you won't know unless you try.

    Stacy, overall 'said' is the best choice, but it's good to know other options.

  54. J L Campbell, yep, I think that kind of experimental use of dialogue is fine IF it's still clear who is speaking.

    Theresa, yes, it's all about balance.

    Mary, thanks for the birthday wishes :)

    Jamie, ah, but it's a road worth taking. And yes, I had a wonderful weekend, thanks.

    Elana, Totally agree

    Toyin, thanks

    Ann, gotta love crit groups.

    Stephen, yep, I do think not using tags when it's obvious who is speaking is effective.

    Maeve, thanks :)

    Nas, thanks

    Misha, haha. Definitely, they are unavoidable when multiple people are speaking in a scene.

    Bish, my inner editor screams at me when I overuse the ly words.

    Damyanti, hehe progress :)

  55. Happy Birthday!

    Sorry I missed it. I illed over the weekend. Fun, fun ... not so much.

    I use 'said' most times, but only when I need to keep it clear who is speaking. I try to keep them to a minimum, using some sort of action or what have you most times instead. It also helps to keep the speakers to a minimum.

    I think it's better to err on clarity though. In my older stuff, I'm more elaborate.

  56. Lee, hehe love your example. Thanks too for the birthday wishes :)

    M Pax, thanks, hope you are feeling better.

  57. Lynda I have just stumbled upon your blog this morning. What a gem! I look forward to a morning coffee, a good read and great advice.


I'd love to hear your opinion. Thanks for leaving a comment.