How to Use Dialogue Tags in Fiction
What is a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is a short phrase used to denote when a character is speaking, for example “he said”/“she whispered”/“he shouted”.
They can take place before, during or after direct speech:
She said, “Now that you mention it, he was acting a little odd.”
“Now that you mention it,” she said, “he was acting a little odd.”
“Now that you mention it, he was acting a little odd,” she said.
Where you place your dialogue tag is purely a style choice. However, long chunks of speech often benefit from being broken up, especially when it isn’t immediately clear who the speaker is at the beginning of the monologue (for instance, if there are more than two characters talking in a scene). However, make sure your dialogue tag is placed somewhere it would be natural for the character to pause or take a breath.
‘Said’ is your friend
A lot of beginner writers go out of their way to avoid using plain old said:
“Do you see it?” Timothy asked.
“See what?” Delilah sputtered. "I don't see anything."
“There!” he gestured. “Up in the tree.”
Said gets a bad rap – and it’s totally unearned.
Most of the time your dialogue tags will be invisible to the reader anyway, as most readers tend to skim them. Think of them as signposts – a signal to the reader as to who is speaking. Getting hung up on creative ways to avoid said is a waste of time at best and, at worst, can be distracting to readers and make your characters come across as caricatures.
You want the actual speech to be doing most of the heavy lifting in your fictional conversations, not the dialogue tags. In other words, the dialogue should be more interesting than the tag.
Restricting yourself to simple tags such as “said”/“asked”/“whispered” will focus your creative brain and force you to write stronger dialogue. (Show don’t tell!)
Make sure that your tags are ‘speaking’ verbs and not action verbs. Notice the last line in the example above (“There!” he gestured. “Up in the tree.”). It's not appropriate here; you can gesture at the same time as speaking, but you can’t gesture the speech itself.
Watch out for adverbs
Adverbs can be useful additions to dialogue tags, and can sometimes add extra information, for example they can tell a reader about the tone in which the character is speaking. Often, however, they are used unnecessarily, and removing them can be a way to tighten up your writing.
“Ugh, I’m starving,” he said miserably. “Shall we go to the pizza place around the corner?”
“No way!” she said stridently. “I hate that place. Last time they put anchovies on my pizza when I specifically told them not to.”
In the above examples, the adverbs miserably and stridently are redundant, since there are enough clues in the dialogue itself, in terms of content and punctuation, to tell us this.
Quash the urge to state the obvious
Don’t use “threatened” when it’s already clear a character is making a threat. Don’t use “begged” when it’s obvious a character is beseeching another for mercy:
“Say that one more time and I swear you won’t be sitting down for a whole week,” she threatened.
“Please,” he begged. “You don’t have to do this. I swear I didn’t mean to eat the last of the custard creams!”
The above tags don’t add any additional, useful information, and cutting out them out (or replacing with said) will make for a smoother experience for the reader.
Actions sometimes speak louder than words
A great way to switch it up is to have your characters do something in place of dialogue tags. Using a short action beat (Bill leaned back on the sofa/Ben lifted his tumbler to his lips/Sandra sighed) in place of he said/she said can add variety and interest, while still acting as a signal that the following dialogue belongs to the character doing the action. Just like tags, they can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of speech.
They can also be a great way to deepen characterisation by interspersing conversations with idiosyncratic tics – does a character have a habit of scratching his nose? Picking at her nails?
“Ugh, I’m starving,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “Shall we go to the pizza place around the corner?”
She shook her head. “No way! I hate that place." Her face screwed up in disgust. "Last time they put anchovies on my pizza when I specifically told them not to.”
Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor