Dialogue Tags

Hello, Write Owls. Welcome to Day 28 of Grammar 110. Today we’re talking about dialogue tags.

There are different schools of thought regarding dialogue tags. I have strong opinions about how to write dialogue, but that doesn’t mean you have to agree with them. These aren’t hard-and-fast rules. I just find these kinds of dialogue tags to be far more engaging than others.

Use said and asked. I was taught to use every synonym possible for said. While in most cases an active, engaging verb is best, that is not the case for dialogue tags. Dialogue tags should be invisible. You want the reader to know who is speaking, but you don’t want to draw attention to your dialogue tags. Using words like barked, hollered, whined, spit, etc. is distracting. Same thing with adverbs.

Here are some examples:

Distracting: “Don’t do that,” she whined. “I don’t like it.”

Invisible: “Don’t do that,” she said. “I don’t like it.”

Distracting: “I hate you!” he shouted.

Distracting: “I hate you!” he said loudly.

Invisible: “I hate you!” he said.

Even better: His words echoed off the walls. “I hate you.”

This final example demonstrates another piece of advice I have. Replace the dialogue tag with an action or some other indicator of who’s speaking. That description can also provide context, so the reader knows how the words are being said. I am a firm believer that dialogue should speak for itself, and the context is all the reader needs to accompany it. If your dialogue is written well, you shouldn’t need to use active verbs or adverbs in your dialogue tags.

You don’t need to go overboard and use said for every single dialogue tag or replace every tag with an action—that’s excessive. You should use a mix of mostly said, a few other words here and there, and actions/descriptions.

You also don’t need a tag (or action/description) for every line of dialogue. If only two people are speaking, use a tag for each of their first lines and refrain from using tags after that. You can throw in the occasional reminder if the exchange is lengthy and readers need help remembering who’s talking. If there’s more than two characters, you need a tag for every line of dialogue to avoid confusion.

If you’re really good at writing dialogue, each character’s speech will be distinct enough you don’t need tags. You should still use them, but that’s the level of dialogue you should strive for. Again, don’t go overboard by giving each character a crazy specific dialect or something. (You can find a lesson about writing dialogue in general here.)

Those are my thoughts on dialogue tags. If you have any questions, leave them in the comments, and I will answer them as a reply since there’s no Q&A on Saturday.

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