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How to use dialogue tags in fiction

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What is a dialogue tag?

A dialogue tag (also known as a speech tag) is a short phrase that is used to show which character is speaking. Dialogue tags can be used at the beginning, in the middle or at the end of dialogue.

‘Hello, Tom, fancy seeing you here,’ said Mandeep.

He said, ‘What do you think you’re doing?’

‘How long have you been waiting?’ asked Catherine.

‘This place is a tip,’ said Mel. ‘You can tidy it up immediately.’

Which dialogue tags should I use?

As with most aspects of fiction writing, there are no rules!

Active verbs are often used to describe how someone is speaking. Words such as countered, remarked, ejaculated, challenged, affirmed, laughed and opined are all popular choices but none of these actually describe the act of speaking. They are likely to jump out at the reader and possibly make the text look contrived. Well-written dialogue and the use of action beats should mean that over-descriptive dialogue tags aren’t needed.

Verbs that convey the act of speaking are the most effective to use, not those that express other actions. The dialogue itself should be showing the reader why the character is speaking in a certain way, rather than an over-descriptive speech tag. Readers know that ‘I think you are wrong,’ said Jake is Jake’s opinion. His opinion doesn’t need to be spelled out by stating ‘I think you are wrong,’ opined Jake. Using said or asked may seem bland and boring but readers tend to be engrossed in the story and will just want to know who is speaking. Remember that the purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader which character is talking.

Consider how simply substituting said still gets the meaning over to the reader:

‘Sure, I will do that for you,’ she clarified.

‘Sure, I will do that for you,’ she said.

The character has already said she will do the task. We don’t need further clarification in the dialogue tag.

‘He did this to you?’ I questioned.

‘He did this to you?’ I said.

We know it is a question as it is phrased as such and has a question mark.

‘Yes, I am going out to buy another bottle of Pinot Grigio,’ affirmed Pauline.

‘Yes, I am going out to buy another bottle of Pinot Grigio,’ said Pauline.

Pauline has told us she is off to buy wine again. She doesn’t need to affirm it.

If you really don’t want to stick with said, the likes of whispered, yelled, shouted, mumbled and murmured are alternatives that involve speaking and can be used, although this is best done sporadically. The occasional asked and replied thrown in is fine, although it is normally obvious when someone is asking a question or giving a response.

A table is included at the end of this post with my thoughts on dialogue tags that are best to use, those to use with caution and those that are best avoided. But, it’s your book and your choice as to which dialogue tags you prefer!

Using action beats to replace over-descriptive dialogue tags

Adding in an action beat can show a character’s mood or attitude. This allows the reader to imagine how the character is reacting or feeling, rather than telling them. If an action beat gives the reader enough information to picture the scene, a dialogue tag is not always required.

‘I want the room tidied instantly!’ I ordered.

‘I want this room tidied instantly!’ I slammed the door.

The abrupt statement is obviously an order, and the slamming door tells us the mood of the speaker, so the dialogue tag is redundant.

‘I have friends!’ I defended.

I folded my arms and scowled. ‘I have friends!’ I said, scowling.

I folded my arms. ‘I have friends!’ I said with a scowl.

The actions and the abrupt statement get the message across that the speech is defensive. We don’t need to be told by way of an over-descriptive dialogue tag.

‘You leave tomorrow evening. It’s final,’ they remarked.

They stood up. ‘You leave tomorrow evening. It’s final.’

It’s now more than a remark. The act of standing up helps us imagine the finality of whatever is happening. No dialogue tag is necessary.

‘Tomorrow, on the train, don’t talk to anyone. Is that clear?’ he demanded.

Sam thrust a finger in my face. ‘Tomorrow, on the train, don’t talk to anyone. Is that clear?’

Sam has made his demands clear in the dialogue, so no dialogue tag is needed.

‘My feet hurt. I can’t walk any further,’ I cried.

I slumped on the ground, removing my trainers. I grimaced and rubbed my swollen feet. ‘I can’t. I just can’t walk any further.’

The description of the action helps envisage the mood of the speaker and how painful their feet must be. The dialogue tag is redundant.

Eye Roll Annoyed Person Frustrated  - RobinHiggins / Pixabay

Using over-descriptive dialogue tags as action beats

If a verb doesn’t work as a dialogue tag, it might work as a standalone action beat. Take a look at the table at the end. Many of those verbs would make excellent action beats: he smiled, she frowned, he sneered and she laughed all work well independently.

‘You just got caught,’ Harry laughed.

Rather than trying to convey how Harry can talk and laugh at the same time, using an action beat before or after the dialogue improves the rhythm and flow.

‘You just got caught.’ Harry laughed.

Harry laughed. ‘You just got caught.’

‘I don’t want to do that,’ I glared.

‘I don’t want to do that.’ I glared.

I glared. ‘I don’t want to do that.’

Adding an action after a dialogue tag

A comma is needed after the dialogue tag but before the adverb.

A comma is not needed when with is used after the dialogue tag, as in the second example. This would separate with a scowl from the verb (said).

I stamped my foot. ‘I want to go on holiday!’ I said, scowling.

I stamped my foot. ‘I want to go on holiday!’ I said with a scowl.

Using too many dialogue tags

Dialogue tags don’t need to be repeated every time a character speaks. The following example shows how tedious and repetitive this is:

‘No, I won’t do it,’ she said.

‘Why?’ he said.

‘Because I don’t want to,’ she said.

‘How selfish,’ he said.

‘You always say you’re going to pay me afterwards, but I’ve yet to see any cash’ she said.

‘I never said I wasn’t going to pay you,’ he said.

There are two people in the conversation, so the reader can work out who is speaking without having dialogue tags to tell them.

‘No, I won’t do it,’ she said.

‘Why?’ said Ken.

‘Because I don’t want to.’

‘How selfish.’

You always say you’re going to pay me afterwards, but I’ve yet to see any cash.’

‘I never said I wasn’t going to pay you.’

Adding in action beats will make the dialogue flow more smoothly.

She put on her coat. ‘No, I won’t do it.’

‘Why?’ asked Ken.

‘Because I don’t want to.’

‘How selfish.’

She picked up her bag. You always say you’re going to pay me afterwards, but I’ve yet to see any cash.’

Ken narrowed his eyes. ‘I never said I wasn’t going to pay you.’

Speech Balloons Chat Dialogue Comic  - DreamDigitalArtist / Pixabay

Using adverbs with dialogue

Adverbs are often used with dialogue tags to give more information about the way that a character has said something. However, the adverb may not be necessary if the dialogue has been written in a way that conveys the same meaning. There is nothing wrong with leaving adverbs to support dialogue, but removing them may just tighten up your writing. Consider the examples below:

‘Let’s go, quick, quick! I’m desperate to get out and go for a run!’ Gerry said energetically.

‘Let’s go, quick, quick! I’m desperate to get out and go for a run!’ Gerry said.

‘Let’s go, quick, quick! I’m desperate to get out and go for a run!’ Gerry said, jogging on the spot.

We know from the exclamation marks and language that Gerry is keen and energetic and wants to go out for a run, so the adverb energetically is really not necessary. In the third example, adding in an action beat shows Gerry’s enthusiasm.

‘Oh, I know your dirty little secret, you devious bitch,’ said Juan knowingly.

Oh, I know your dirty little secret, you devious bitch,’ said Juan.

Oh, I know your dirty little secret, you devious bitch,’ said Juan, narrowing his eyes.

Juan already told us he knows the secret, so the adverb knowingly is redundant. The action beat in the third example shows Juan is not happy about the knowledge.

‘Go. Just go. I never want to see your cheating face again, you absolute lowlife,’ Edward said angrily.

Edward clenched his fists. His face reddened. ‘Go. Just go. I never want to see your cheating face again, you absolute lowlife.’ He threw the suitcase after Simon, scattering clothes and toiletries onto the pavement. The door slammed.

Edward’s actions show us that he is angry. The adverb angrily is redundant.

Double-telling

An easy trap to fall into is adding an adverb to a dialogue tag that gives the same information, for example murmuring quietly: murmuring is quiet by default. The adverb can be removed so that the dialogue tag does all the work. Alternatively, the dialogue tag can be replaced with said and used alongside the adverb.

‘Are you OK?’ she murmured quietly.

‘Are you OK?’ she murmured.

‘Are you OK?’ she said quietly.

‘I hate you,’ he shouted loudly.

‘I hate you,’ he shouted.

‘I hate you,’ he said loudly.

Suggested dialogue tags

Use freely Use sparingly Over-descriptive
said  

asked

hissed

mumbled

murmured

replied

shouted

whispered

yelled

affirmed

apologised  

bemoaned

 boomed           

cajoled

challenged         

clarified           

commanded       

complained

confided           

continued

countered           

dictated             

ejaculated

exclaimed

fawned

frowned           

interjected

interrupted

 laughed           

lied     

moaned           

opined

pleaded           

pontificated           

purred  

quipped

remarked           

retorted

scowled           

smiled

snarled           

sneered

spat    

threatened           

thundered

uttered

yawned  

     
Final words…     
  • The purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader which character is talking.
  • Stick with known and trusted dialogue tags that convey the act of speaking.
  • Use action beats to improve the rhythm and pace of dialogue. Experiment with using fewer dialogue tags and include action beats as a way of showing who is talking.
  • Consider removing adverbs that are not necessary if the dialogue already gives the same information. Also beware of using adverbs with a dialogue tag that givesthe same information.
  • Read more on using dialogue in fiction.

 

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I’m Clare Black, a fiction book editor based in Stockport, UK. I help independent authors prepare for publishing by fixing the important details and improving the readability of their books. I specialise in crime, thriller and contemporary fiction, but I am happy to consider other genres. I am a Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP).

I offer various packages to help indie authors get published and would love the opportunity to discuss your book and how I can help you prepare for publishing.

Email: clare@clareblackediting.com

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