What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags are things like “Tina said” that tell us which character is speaking.
How to use dialogue tags
Here are a few dos and don’ts of dialogue tags.
1. Avoid using dialogue tags other than “said” and “asked” and maybe “answered.” “Said” really is the best tag because the reader is so used to it that she or he barely registers it. Other tags draw attention to themselves and away from the dialogue. It’s a way of telling. You’re explaining to readers how a line of dialogue was spoken instead of showing them. The occasional “whispered” etc. is okay, but 99% of the time, use “said.”
“Give me the book!” Tina demanded.
Rewrite: “Give me the book,” Tina said.
The line of dialogue shows us it’s a demand. We don’t need the tag to tell us. By the way, overusing exclamation marks is telling too.
2. Don’t use actions or facial expressions as a dialogue tag. No one can “laugh,” “smile,” “snort,” etc., a line of dialogue.
“Please come in,” she smiled.
Separate it with a period, not a comma.
Rewrite: “Please come in.” She smiled.
3. Avoid adverbs in tags. Let the dialogue do the work. This is another form of “telling.” The adverb tells us how the line of dialogue is spoken. Instead, show it through the words of the dialogue or through body language.
“Why did you do that?” she asked angrily.
Rewrite: “Why the hell did you do that?” she asked.
4. Strictly speaking, “she said with…” (e.g., with satisfaction, with a smile, etc.) is telling. It’s also incorrect because you can only say things with your mouth, not with other things.
“Good-bye,” she said with a glance back.
Rewrite: “Good-bye.” She glanced back.
5. Use either an action beat or a dialogue tag, not both. Beats are actions of the speaker that you put in the same paragraph as the line of dialogue.
“You just need to sign,” she said, handing Lisa the contract.
Rewrite: “You just need to sign.” She handed Lisa the contract.
6. Slip in the tags as early as possible. Don’t let the reader wait too long to find out who’s talking.
“No. A werewolf is basically a human that has been bitten by a werewolf and turned into one of them. Shape-shifters aren’t human at all and never have been. They have their own culture, their own language, their own physiology,” Jorie said.
Rewrite: “No,” Jorie said. “A werewolf is basically a human that has been bitten by a werewolf and turned into one of them. Shape-shifters aren’t human at all and never have been. They have their own culture, their own language, their own physiology.”
If you avoid these dialogue mistakes, your writing will read much better.