Mind your dialogue tags!
Conversations are an important part of storytelling and are used to reveal a wealth of information: from a bonding moment, to a backstory, to a plot twist, and everything in-between.
It’s the writer’s job to ensure that the dialogue used within a conversation not only fits the character speaking, but that it flows in a realistic fashion.
In fiction writing it is vitally important that the speaker within a conversation is easily identified. This is where dialogue tags come into play.
What are dialogue tags?
They are markers, little sentence clauses that follow the spoken words and act like a signpost for the reader. Their function is to attribute written dialogue to a particular character. These small phrases indicate speech, telling the reader exactly who is speaking.
“Did you hear that?” Emma asked.
The phrase ‘Emma asked’ is the dialogue tag in the sentence.
The main use of those is to keep characters straight for the reader. Writers can also use them for: mimicking the natural rhythms in speech, breaking up long pieces of dialogue and making them more digestible, maintaining, elevating or break tension.
Tags can, and for the most part, should be basic and simple. The words ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are the most obvious and the most used tags. However, dialogue tags can, of course, go beyond ‘said’ and ‘asked’ – we will get to that a bit later.
First, let’s discuss how to properly utilize them in a written conversation.
How to use Dialogue Tags
Dialogue sentences are made of two parts: the dialogue, which is the spoken portion of the sentence, and then the dialogue tag, which identifies the speaker. The dialogue tag is the telling part of the sentence, while the actual dialogue used is the showing.
Dialogue tags can be found in three places: either before the dialogue, in-between the actual dialogue, or after.
The rules for punctuating dialogue and associated tags are quite precise. Commas go in particular places, as do terminal marks such as periods, exclamation points, and question marks. In this article we shall be following the rules for standard American English. (UK English uses a different set of punctuation rules.)
#1 – Tag Before the Dialogue
Adding a tag in the beginning means that the character who is speaking is introduced before the actual quote.
Rising slowly from her chair, Emma asked, “Are we sure about this plan?”
Placing her hands on her hips, Emma said, “I doubt you know more than I do!”
- Use a comma after the tag.
- If the dialogue is the beginning of a sentence, capitalize the first letter.
- End the dialogue with the appropriate punctuation and keep punctuation within the quotation marks.
#2 – Tag in the Middle of the Dialogue
Dialogue can be interrupted and then resumed in the same sentence. The tag can also be used to separate two sentences. In both cases, this signifies a pause your character takes.
“I thought you cared,” Emma said, “how could you let her leave?”
“I thought you cared.” Emma said, hoping to provoke him. “How could you let her leave?”
- When it is one continuous sentence, a comma is used before the dialogue tag and goes inside quotation marks.
- A comma is used after the dialogue tag, outside of quotation marks, to reintroduce it.
- Unless the dialogue tag begins with a proper noun, it is not capitalized.
- End the dialogue with the appropriate punctuation keeping it inside the quotation marks.
- When it is two sentences, the first sentence will end with a period and the second begins with a capital letter.
#3 – Tag After the Dialogue
Most often you will likely place your dialogue tag after the quote. Therefore, making the quote the focal point of the sentence.
“Are you done?” Emma asked.
“Are you done?” asked Emma.
- Punctuation goes inside quotation marks.
- Unless the dialogue tag begins with a proper noun, it is not capitalized.
- End the dialogue tag with appropriate punctuation.
All the examples given up until this point have focused on using ‘said’ or ‘asked’ as part of the dialogue tags. These are the most common tags, and simply let the reader know who is talking. They serve the purpose without distracting from what is being said.
Often times both ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are overlooked by readers, becoming invisible as they act out the conversations in their heads.
As long as ‘said’ and ‘asked’ are not overused, (repeated in every paragraph of dialogue) they will definitely fade into the background. However, if they are used in every sentence during a section of dialogue, then they will most definitely cease to be invisible.
As a writer, you never want your conversations to stand out and distract, confuse, or slow the read.
Avoiding Unnecessary Dialogue Tags
The purpose of dialogue tags is to identify the speaker, not to draw attention to the writer’s broad vocabulary or their limitless ability to consult with a thesaurus.
Two common mistakes every author makes:
#1 – Adverbial
An adverbial dialogue tag is when an adverb modifies the verb used. They are those ‘–ly’ adverbs used to convey emotion and tone. The problem with these types of tags is they are all tell. Readers are being told how a character feels, as opposed to the words themselves showing what is happening.
“This is not your concern,” Emma said angrily.
The adverb ‘angrily’ adds nothing to this sentence. What it does instead is distract from it. A writer should want to evoke the emotion, and using adverbial dialogue tags take that away.
An example fix for the above sentence could be as follows:
“This is not your concern!” Emma said.
By using the exclamation mark you are showing the readers Emma’s emotions. There is no need for extra embellishment. When you tell the reader how a character says something, you remove the power from their spoken words. Try and refrain from using adverbial tags, instead show the reader character emotions though punctuation, dialogue, or action.
More on using action with dialogue tags later.
First, let’s discuss the second faux-pas when it comes to dialogue tags: synonyms
#2 – Synonyms
I like to call these types of tags, said-isms. A said-ism is a synonym used to replace the word ‘said’ in a dialogue tag.
The key to realistic dialogue is keeping it simple. Using distractive synonyms such as ‘exclaimed’ and ‘uttered’ draw attention to the mechanics of the conversation you are writing.
“Emma,” she implored, “please listen.”
The word implored stands out like a sore thumb. It jarrs the reader from the moment putting the focus of the sentence on the tag, not on the dialogue. Instead of using this said-ism, you can simply use punctuation to get the point across.
“Emma,” she said, “please listen.”
By placing the word ‘please’ in italics, the writer shows the reader that the speaker is earnestly begging Emma to listen. No need to switch out ‘said’ for ‘implored.
The key to realistic dialogue is to keep it simple. Avoid searching for synonyms to use as creative descriptive dialogue tags which will only stand out. The dialogue tag should do its duty and identify the speaker without shining light on itself.
Sometimes (emphasis on sometimes) it is indeed okay to substitute the word ‘said’ for something else.
“Stop.” Emma said.
“Stop.” Emma muttered.
The tag ‘muttered’ adds a new understanding to the way the line of dialogue is spoken. This said-ism replacement enhances the dialogue and gives the reader a deeper grasp of the conversation. That is the key difference between the ‘intoned’ example and the ‘muttered’ example.
Substitutes for ‘said’ should be used sparingly and when they are used they need to elevate the dialogue, not distract from it.
When you find yourself using a substitute for “said,” pause and ask yourself these two important questions:
- Is the dialogue itself able to convey the expression without the use of the tag?
- Can punctuation be used in place of the tag?
The more you write and find your own writer’s voice/style, the less you will not need to pause and question your use of dialogue tags. However, until then it’s vital to take a moment and make sure you’re getting them right.
What happens when a writer has a lot of conversational ground to cover and does not want to overwhelm the reader with repetitive dialogue tags? In that instance should the tags be avoided?
Let’s examine this in detail.
Should you avoid dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags should not be completely avoided, but their use can be reduced so as not to wear about the reader. Make sure that readers always know which character is speaking, but keep in mind that dialogue tags aren’t the only means to identify the speaker.
A safe alternative is the use of action beats along with your dialogue tags.
What are Action Beats in dialogue?
An action beat is the description of an action a character makes while talking. It serves to let the reader know not only who is talking, but also show the character in motion. An action on the same line as speech indicates that particular person was speaking.
[Dialogue tag] “Leave,” Emma said, “right now!”
[Action beat] “Leave,” Emma pointed at the door, “right now!”
As you can see, action beats help break up dialogue, and can be used in place of dialogue tags. If you are writing a conversation with multiple speaking characters, then you don’t necessarily need to use a dialogue tag to let the reader know that there has been a change in speaker.
Action beats can turn the reader’s focus from one character to another.
“I’m gonna kill him,” Emma said.
Victoria grinned. “Want some help?”
“I’ll need to hide the body.”
“I know the perfect place, very isolated.”
Geri let out a deep sigh as she stepped between them. “No one is killing anyone or hiding any bodies.”
In this example, there has been only one use of a dialogue tag, yet it remains clear who is speaking each line. The key is to use the tag only when it is needed. Once you identify the speaker, the reader should be able to go for several lines without needing another identifier.
An action beat can replace many words of description. We associate a frown with displeasure, clenched fists with anger, and tears with sadness. However, like any other literary device, action beats can distract the reader if overused and abused.
Remember, dialogue should sound real.
The most effective dialogue is the conversations that readers can imagine your characters speaking, without all the clutter and distractions of incorrect punctuation, repetitive tags, adverbs, or synonyms.
Practice these writing exercises for adults.
Read your manuscript out loud to actually hear how the conversations sound. That will be the best way to see if you have your dialogue tags right.