What’s a Dialogue Tag?
Dialogue tags are narrator interjections, sometimes referred to as attribution, that note who speak the pieces of dialogue in your story.
Historically, we were taught that adverbs included in the tags, describing how dialogue is delivered, add to a reader’s experience. And then we were taught that adverbs are the devil and to rigidly use “said” and nothing else. Confusing, right?
A very real truth is that many a great story’s been decimated by the insertion of story-stalling wordy, repetitive, absurd, unnecessary and distracting dialogue tags. Writing is all about storytelling and context and it’s good to remember the writing style of any age is a fluid and evolving thing. What does that mean for dialogue tags? Leaving past styles in the past where the traditional presentation of dialogue was heavy with tags and adverbs, nowadays, sometimes, we don’t need dialogue tags. And yet sometimes we do. Sometimes, we use “said” and then again sometimes we use adverbs.
However you use dialogue tags, the cardinal rule is they must be appropriate to the context, style and genre, enhance and never distract. Let’s deconstruct them a bit to learn how to use them effectively.
How to use Dialogue Tags
Every dialogue tag has two components – the noun and the verb (+adverbs). This allows us to attribute an action to a character.
For example: “said Mary (angrily)”
Mary = the character, this is the noun
said = the action Mary does, this is the verb
angrily = describes how “said” (the action) is performed, this is the adverb
Okay, so some basic nuts-and-bolts of dialogue tags in use. There’s more than one way to insert them:
- before the dialogue
- after the dialogue
- in the middle of the dialogue
If you thought you could only insert them before or after dialogue, you’ll find this illuminating. Placement of dialogue tags is another device in your storytelling. Use it to affect pacing by breaking up or slowing down the action at the same time you note who speaks. Some examples in use:
Tag Before the Dialogue
Remmy spoke after a beat, “I have no idea where we’re going.”
Tag After the Dialogue
“A secret passage?” Miriam asked, sceptical.
Tag in the Middle of the Dialogue
“You were expecting a palace?” Jeff scoffed. “The rats won’t bite. Ignore them. C’mon, we need to hurry.”
Avoiding the absurd
Descriptive words in dialogue tags cue the reader to who’s speaking even if you don’t cite the name. Each character’s underlying motivation and the drama around them affects how their words are delivered. You can use this to your advantage. Using words other than “said” like “grumbled” or “whispered” can help convey the emotional state of your characters to make who is speaking clear. This is a good, specific use for dialogue tags that helps your readers stay on track.
Caveat: The danger here is going overboard. When it becomes unwieldy, you can end up making a parody of your own story. At its least offensive, overly descriptive dialogue tags “tell”, attempting to prop-up the weak prose around them that doesn’t “show” the action. Don’t be lazy and expect what you put in the tags to do this work for you. For example:
“Telling” tags instead of descriptive prose
When the door finally opened, Macy and Liam dragged several heavy duffel bags after them. “Get them in the car. Now,” Randy growled threateningly. “We don’t have time for this,” he huffed with annoyance.
Why is this guy so annoyed? We have no context here and no amount of adverbs telling us how he’s annoyed is going to tell us that. For comparison…
“Showing” prose with zero actual dialogue tags
Randy prowled around the parked car, impatient. There was no telling how soon the faceless man with the gun would catch them up. They had to get moving. Or they’d be dead. He jumped as the steel door finally banged open on Macy and Liam. Rather than rush out to make a quick getaway, they struggled with several duffel bags heavy enough to leave drag marks in the soft earth. Randy clenched his fists to keep from strangling them and jerked the passenger side back door open. “Get them in the car. Now.” He reached out and grabbed up one of the bags to speed them along, “We don’t have time for this.”
Nothing award-winning there, but you get the idea. The context is obvious, the story moved forward and no overbearing tags.
This is where the advice “don’t use anything beyond ‘said’/’asked’ in a tag” comes in.
Even with my journalistic background (where there’s nothing beyond ‘said’/’asked’), I think we can open that up a bit when it’s effective for a story. But I’ll die on the hill of it’s not the job of dialogue tags to convey the tension in your story. Do it with stellar prose. If your writing is strong, then you can use simpler, efficient dialogue tags like “said” or “asked” and often get away without them at all (like in the second example above). Some people argue this is a stylistic choice. They are what we like to call, wrong. ahem
Unless you’re doing it for effect, avoid packing adverbs around your dialogue or risk your work becoming labelled purple prose. What’s purple prose? (Oy… that’ll take a whole other article…) In a nutshell, purple prose (not to be confused with complex writing) is overly ornate, flowery, wordy and uses a lot of metaphors or figurative language. It draws attention to itself for no purpose.
When it comes to dialogue tags, less is more, so instead, put the effort into your prose. Always.
How often should you use dialogue tags?
Again, less is more.
If your storytelling is solid and conveys your characters’ emotion, motivation and actions through superior word choices and phrasing, don’t add unneeded distractions. Unnecessary or clumsy dialogue tags drop the magic curtain and reveal the author. Too many tags are distracting and pull the reader out of your story. Dialogue tags should remain invisible or at the very least unobtrusive.
Too many dialogue tags creating distraction
“I don’t like it,” Francis huffed.
“Oh, it’s always all about you, isn’t it,” Charlotte retorted haughtily.
Francis lowered his voice accusingly, “Seriously? You have the nerve to still go there. After what you did?”
Charlotte’s forehead puckered angrily as she spoke. “Look, you can’t keep bringing that up. I said I was sorry! It’s in the past now. What more do you want from me?” she inquired, cross.
Francis’s voice grew ragged in sudden anger, “What do I want?” he asked incredulously.
Charlotte dropped her voice and whispered in reply, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
Francis cleared his throat nervously, “I’m done.” He paused and then delivered his next words carefully, “It’s too late,“ he snapped.
“What are you saying?” Charlotte whined.
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” he replied distantly. “This was a bad idea. There’s nothing left to salvage here.”
Yikes, over-blowing that for illustration hurt me. 😱 Anyway, clearly, all that “telling” used quite a lot of description and words, but the entire block of text doesn’t say anything important. It doesn’t move the story forward and the dialogue tags overtake the conversation. This is unproductive. You can do it better.
Lean rewrite without tag distraction
“I don’t like it,” Francis’s tone made it clear there was more to say, but he kept it to himself.
“Oh, it’s always all about you, isn’t it,” Charlotte snapped before she could stop herself.
“Seriously? You have the nerve to still go there. After what you did?”
Charlotte took a breath, “Look, you can’t keep bringing that up. I said I was sorry! It’s in the past now. What more do you want from me?”
“What do I want?”
“Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.”
“I’m done.” He paused. “It’s too late.“
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking,” Francis shook his head. “This was a bad idea. There’s nothing left to salvage here.”
This is another way to go if you’ve exposed the inciting incident prior to this conversation. Doing it this way, even with limited dialogue tags, it’s wholly in context and the reader will be able to follow it without difficulty.
Bulked-out rewrite without tag distraction and including story disclosure
Cranky, Francis inspected the renovation of their old living room. “I don’t like it.”
“Oh, it’s always all about you, isn’t it,” back tensing, the words jumped out of Charlotte’s mouth before she could stop them. Separation and couples therapy helped nothing. Things had been so bad between them it didn’t take much to drop them right back into the old arguments. Cringing, she knew this wasn’t about renovating their former marital home. She just wanted to start over.
“Seriously?” His voice dripped ice, “You have the nerve to still go there? After what you did?”
It should have never happened. Randy had been his best friend. How was she supposed to come back from that? “Look, you can’t keep bringing that up. I said I was sorry! It’s in the past now.” What a mess. “What more do you want from me?”
“What do I want?” and clenched his teeth before he said something he’d have to report to the lawyer.
She hung her head, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll do it.” All she knew was she wanted to fix this. Because she still loved him.
It was a long moment before he spoke again.”I’m done.” Francis shouldered her out of the way and made for the hallway. “It’s too late.”
“What are you saying?”
“I don’t know what I was thinking.” He paused in the entry to the hall and spoke over his shoulder, no longer capable of looking at her. “This was a bad idea. There’s nothing left to salvage here.”
When the conversation reveals your inciting incident, the words of dialogue become the means. Since the story is built-out during the conversation, there’s enough context to get away with little-to-no dialogue tags without confusing the reader.
Use as many dialogue tags as it takes to keep things clear
Keeping it to a minimum is great when you only have one or two characters speaking, but that isn’t always how it goes.
Speaking from personal experience, a conversation with multiple characters is difficult enough for the author writing it to keep straight, so you can imagine how confusing it can be to the reader. This is a perfect situation for well-placed dialogue tags to keep your reader on track. During conversation between several characters, the goal is keeping the reader from having to step out of your story to wonder who said what. Having written myself into this particular corner with ensemble casts multiple times, while I doubt I’ll ever be perfect at it, I get lots of practice with this one.
I follow the rule of using only as many dialogue tags as it takes to keep who’s speaking clear. At the same time, I work to minimise distraction. I’ll wind a bit of the unfolding story around the ensemble conversation as well as disclose it through the dialogue. This adds the context that allows me to use less tags. This also lets me do things like not tagging some of the minor characters making interjections if there are any. Only the sentiment or emotion they convey is important to the story, not who made them.
While we always want to aim for natural-sounding dialogue, we can’t write exactly the way we speak, because the way we speak is boring. Writing dialogue well means we aim for an approximation of human speech where we take out all the boring bits and leave in the parts that move the story forward. In doing this, we can get away with occasionally referencing another character’s name. In the real world, we rarely do this, but we can cheat it.
“Hey, Marty, can you pass me that sonic screwdriver?”
During ensemble conversations, a combination of one or two well-placed spoken character references (without making it weird), a couple dialogue tags and nestling the dialogue into the unfolding story to provide context can get us out of a jam when multiple characters speak.
Using the right amount of dialogue tags clues the reader in without becoming noticeable, breaking the story flow, or hindering a reader’s immersion in your fictional world.