What are Dialogue Tags and How to Use Them?

Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are a simple way to add variety and texture to your writing. They’re the “he said,” or “she whispered” part of the dialogue that comes after a direct quote. Dialogue tags (“said John”) add warmth, identity, and movement to writing without getting in the way of the story. “Said John” should pass almost unnoticed, so it can blend in with the background of your writing.

Dialogue tags are one way to show a character’s emotions and feelings through their speech. Tags can also help establish the mood, tone, tempo, tension, rhythm, pace, and voice of dialogue. We use them all the time when we talk to communicate how we feel and our intentions with others.

For example:

“I hate writing dialogue tags,” she said petulantly. “It’s such a frivolous waste of time.” Her tone was sullen and bored as she cautiously watched her sister tie the pretty ribbon in her hair.

Characters use italics, adverbs (like petulantly), and action verbs to express their personalities and emotions through their speech. Speech is one of the five senses we employ when we read fiction; it helps transport us into another world and create dynamic characters for readers to love (or loathe).

How do Dialogue Tags work?

1. Dialogue tags tell the reader who is speaking. “John said,” tells us that John, and not Mary or anyone else, is talking. The tag lets readers know exactly who’s speaking:

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·          “Mary whistled as she put on her coat,” John said.

·          John laughed as he watched his son race around the yard with a dog.

·          “I hate you,” she sobbed.

2. A dialogue tag can also tell us how the character speaks, by using an adverb (Petulantly, however, irritably, cheerfully, etc.) or adjective (He said loudly; She whispered sadly). Here are some examples of dialogue tags with adverbs:

·          “I’m not going to school today,” he said angrily.

·          “I want that toy in the window!” she whined childishly.

·          He laughed heartily, enjoying her distress.

3. A dialogue tag can also show us how the character speaks, by using an adverb or adjective. Here are some examples of dialogue tags with adjectives:

·          “I don’t want to go,” she said softly.

·          He spoke softly, not wanting to disturb his wife.

How to Use Dialogue Tags?

In general, use a dialogue tag after every line of dialogue. This will make it easier for readers to follow who is speaking at any given time. In the example above, there are no periods between the lines of dialogue and each new speaker starts with a capital letter. This helps readers see how the conversation flows more clearly than they would if there were no dialogue tags at all.

Some writers use a comma after each speaker’s name, but not after the tag: “I hate writing dialogue tags,” she said petulantly. “It’s such a frivolous waste of time.” Her tone was sullen and bored as she cautiously watched her sister tie the pretty ribbon in her hair.

Some writers use a period after each speaker’s name and leave out the comma: “I hate writing dialogue tags,” she said petulantly. “It’s such a frivolous waste of time.” Her tone was sullen and bored as she cautiously watched her sister tie the pretty ribbon in her hair.

“John, would you grab the paintbrush for me? I can’t quite reach that high spot.”

“Sure, no problem,” John said. He reached up and smiled as he handed it to her. “Here you go.”

“Thanks so much.” She grinned back at him.

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How do you know which dialogue tag to use?

There are many ways to handle dialogue tags. Use the one that works best for you and your writing, but it’s a good idea to be consistent with whichever style you choose. The general rule is to use a comma after every line of dialogue. You can also leave out punctuation entirely between each line or only put a period at the end of the dialogue. You can also use a period after each speaker’s name and leave out the comma if you like.

Some writing coaches recommend using “said” for every line of dialogue. In other words, don’t use any synonyms for “said,” such as: “whispered,” “shouted,” or “replied.” This is the simplest and most direct way to handle dialogue tags with no fuss or bother.

Other writers feel that “said” gets repetitive and it’s better to use a variety of synonyms: said, replied, cried, shouted, laughed. Not everyone agrees on this style either. It’s really up to you as an author. Some readers might prefer one style, while others may react more to a different approach.

There is no hard and fast rule for how you choose to handle dialogue tags in your writing, so go with the flow. Choose the method that best suits your story and characters and most closely fits what you’re trying to convey in each scene.

In the following section, we’ll look at some variations on dialogue tags.

Conversational Tags

Some writers prefer to use a conversation tag rather than a regular “said” tag. They might write: “I hate writing dialogue tags,” she said with a scowl. Some authors feel this approach adds more personality and color to each character.

Another example: “I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” she said with a sullen and bored tone. “It’s such a frivolous waste of time.” Her sister watched her cautiously as she tied the pretty ribbons in her hair without saying a word.

Action Tags

You can also use action verbs instead to show dialogue. They can be more concise and direct than using a spoken tag: “I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” she said with a scowl. It’s such a frivolous waste of time.

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“I think you’re being too hard on yourself. Your work is just fine.”

She looked up, her expression sullen and bored as she watched her sister tie the ribbons in her hair without saying a word. Her sister was cautiously watching her every move, waiting for any excuse to start an argument or give out one more lecture about responsibility and how important it is to finish high school before joining the family business.

Adjective Tags

Another variation is to use an adjective at the beginning or end of a dialogue tag: “I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” she said petulantly. Her sister looked at her quietly for a moment before she carefully tied the pretty ribbon in her hair without saying a word. She watched her every move cautiously, waiting for any excuse to start an argument or give out one more lecture about responsibility and how important it is to finish high school before joining the family business.

“I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” she said petulantly. Her sister silently watched her tie the ribbon in her hair, cautiously waiting for any excuse to start an argument or give out one more lecture about responsibility and how important it is to finish high school before joining the family business.

In this example, we used a different adjective at the beginning of each line to convey a different attitude toward dialogue tags. The last sentence uses a single adjective to tie all three lines together. It’s up to you as an author which approach you choose—or if you have a better idea!

Character Name Tags

Some writers try not using said at all by giving some variation on the character’s name with every line of dialogue: “I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” Trudy said petulantly. Her sister silently watched her tie the ribbon in her hair, cautiously waiting for any excuse to start an argument or give out one more lecture about responsibility and how important it is to finish high school before joining the family business.

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“I’m so sick of writing dialogue tags,” Trudy said petulantly. Her sister silently watched her tie the ribbon in her hair, cautiously waiting for any excuse to start an argument or give out one more lecture about responsibility and how important it is to finish high school before joining the family business.

Final Thought

When you are editing your own work, it’s time to experiment with different ways of including dialogue tags. You may find them distracting or weak—or they may give your writing the impact you intended. But if you have a choice between using said and some other variation all throughout your manuscript, pick one style and stick with it. It will make your work easier for an editor to follow.

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