Using Dialogue Tags the Right Way

Oh, dialogue tags. They’re the unsung heroes of any conversation in your writing. You’ve heard of them, you’ve used them, and, let’s be honest, you’ve probably misused them, too (no judgment, we’ve all been there). But this section is going to take you from dialogue tag dabbler to dialogue tag dominator in no time!

What Are Dialogue Tags?

Dialogue tags are the “he said,” “she exclaimed” and “they whispered” parts of your dialogue. They let the reader know who is saying what in your masterpiece. But there’s an art to using these tags, and it’s about much more than just avoiding confusion.

The Purpose of Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like seasoning in a dish. When used correctly, they enhance the flavor (or, in this case, the understanding) without drawing attention to themselves. Their primary purpose is to show who is speaking, but they can also add a hint of emotion, tone or action without the need for a lengthy description.

Using Dialogue Tags Effectively

  1. Keep it simple: “Said” and “asked” are your best friends. They’re invisible to the reader, allowing the dialogue itself to take center stage.
  2. Show, don’t tell: Use dialogue tags to hint at a character’s emotions instead of telling them outright. Instead of “she said angrily,” try, “she snapped.”
  3. Break up long speeches: If a character is delivering a lengthy speech, use dialogue tags to break up the text and add actions. This can help to maintain the reader’s interest.

To Tag or Not to Tag: Deciding When to Use Dialogue Tags

Remember, the purpose of a tag is to clarify who is speaking. Feel free to skip the tag if it’s clear from the context who’s talking.

“I’m not sure I want to go to the movie tonight,” Mary admitted.

John pursed his lips. “Are you sure?”

“Yes, I’m sure.”

I didn’t add a dialogue tag to the last line because it’s evident that Mary’s saying it.

Common Dialogue Tags and Their Usage

“Said,” “asked,” “replied” and “exclaimed” are your bread and butter. They’re versatile and reader friendly. Here are some examples:

  1. “I’m just going to the store,” he said.
  2. “Is that your final answer?” she asked.

Less Common Dialogue Tags and When to Use Them

Words like “whispered,” “muttered,” “shouted” and “scoffed” can add a layer of meaning but use them sparingly to avoid distracting the reader. Here are examples:

  1. “I love you,” he whispered.
  2. “As if,” she scoffed.

The Power of “Said” and “Asked”

The tags “said” and “asked” are nonintrusive. They provide the necessary information without pulling focus from the dialogue. Don’t be afraid to use them!

Avoiding Dialogue Tag Mistakes: Common Pitfalls and How to Dodge Them

Here are some common mistakes to avoid:

  1. Adverb overload: “He said excitedly,” “she said sadly,” “they said angrily.” Adverbs in dialogue tags can clutter your writing. Try to show these emotions through the dialogue and the characters’ actions instead.
  2. Getting fancy: “Interjected,” “queried,” “expostulated.” These might make you feel like a wordsmith, but they can pull the reader out of the story. Stick to simpler tags whenever possible.

Just like a good friend, dialogue tags should be there when you need them but blend into the background when you don’t. Use them wisely, and your dialogue will flow as smoothly as a well-mixed cocktail.

Exercise: Correcting Dialogue Tag Use

Let’s put what you’ve learned into practice! Below is a dialogue-heavy passage with some misused dialogue tags. See if you can spot the issues and correct them. (We’ll provide an answer key, but try first without peeking!)

(Note: Try to rewrite these lines using the principles outlined in this section, then check your answers with the key below.)

  1. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Steve declared ominously.
  2. “Oh, you’re always worrying,” Jessica retorted irritably.
  3. “What if they don’t like me?” he questioned fearfully.
  4. “They’ll love you,” Jessica reassured comfortingly.
Answer Key
  1. “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” Steve said.
  2. “Oh, you’re always worrying,” Jessica snapped.
  3. “What if they don’t like me?” he asked.
  4. “They’ll love you,” Jessica assured him.

Notice how the corrected version is simpler and cleaner. The dialogue and actions of the characters convey the emotion, reducing the need for adverbs and less common tags.