Dialogue is one of the most important parts of writing a novel or a short story, so every writer has to know how to use dialogue tags.
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.
2 thoughts on “6 tips for using dialogue tags”
Quite a few of your “do’s and don’ts” are more stylistic choices than ‘right’ or wrong’, and a couple of your comments are just incorrect. I won’t argue the subjective points, but I will correct what I see as misleading errors:
“Don’t” #2- You can laugh or snort a line of dialog. A dialog tag like this indicates the line is delivered in that manner rather than as a separate act.
“No, you got it all wrong,” he chuckled.
He chuckled. “No, you got it all wrong.”
In the first line, the man is chuckling as he is speaking. In the second instance, the laugh is a separate distinct act. He chuckles, then makes his remark.
Don’t #4- “It’s also incorrect because you can only say things with your mouth, not with other things.”
Either you were trying to be cheeky and completely missed the tone, or you are conflating function and manner. People can write with confidence and style even if it’s their fingers that are moving the stylus or typing out the answer. The preposition “with” has other uses than just to indicate the implement used to do something.
I’m going to also say that your “rewrite” example is not an improvement, and that goes for #5 as well.
Just as with grammar rules, when it comes to writing styles I think it would be better to be less prescriptive and more descriptive. There is a balance to be struck between descriptive writing and economy of verbiage.
As so often with writing, the rules are more guidelines, but I still think it’s important to keep certain things in mind and be aware of them, especially for beginners.
We’ll just have to agree to disagree on the “she chuckled” as a dialogue tag. You can chuckle and speak nearly simultaneously but not really at the exact same moment. Most editors I know would flag the use of “chuckled” as a dialogue tag. But, as always, if it’s your name on the cover of the book, the final choice is yours.