Dialogue tags help identify the speaker in a dialogue, but they are often a source of distraction for the reader. If you’re wondering if, and when, you should be using dialogue tags, this is your guide!
A dialogue tag, also called an attribution, is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue, which identifies the speaker. Without dialogue tags, especially in group conversations, it can become unclear who is saying what, even with proper paragraph breaks. Some examples of where to place dialogue tags in a sentence.
Before: Sarah said, “You should stay.”
After: “You should stay,” Sarah said.
In between: “You,” Sarah said, “should stay.”
In between: “You should stay,” Sarah said. “I want you to.”
In essence, dialogue tags are used to identify a speaker; prevent reader confusion and/or loss of interest; mimic speech’s natural rhythms; make long dialogue sections digestible; elevate, maintain, or break tension; and provide opportunities to insert action or description.
“A dialogue tag is a small phrase
either before, after, or in between the
dialogue, which identifies the speaker.“
The most-used dialogue tag is “said.” A very rare “asked,” “whispered,” or maybe a “murmured” can find its way into your manuscript, but contemporary writing kindly asks you to lay off everything else. “Said” is a word readers are used to in connection to dialogue. It blends into the story. As soon as you use a word other than “said” to indicate someone is saying something, you draw attention to it, so you’d better make sure there is a need to draw attention to it.
The only reason a dialogue tag should be anything other than “said” is when the scene is not congruent with the way a sentence is spoken. If your characters are hiding from a killer, it’s obvious they will be whispering. If your characters are panicking, they are almost certainly shouting. “Said,” is all you need. If your characters are doing something other than whispering when scared, or shouting when panicked, then—if you really need a dialogue tag—you should use one other than “said.”
“The only reason a dialogue tag should
be anything other than “said” is when
the scene is not congruent with the way
a sentence is spoken.“
I hardly ever use dialogue tags in my writing. I think they are bulky, and awkward. They disrupt the flow of a story. I’ve used exactly sixteen of them in Survival Instincts and even less in The Kincaid Chronicles: Origins. I use action tags as much as possible. Action tags, or action beats, are actions of the speaker, which are placed in the same paragraph as the line of dialogue. They identify the speaker without actually naming them. For example:
Sarah kissed a line up to Evan’s jaw. “You should stay.”
Action tags keep the story going. Instead of causing a beat with a dialogue tag, you further the plot. They also make sense. Consider the first example:
“You should stay,” Sarah said.
In order to set the stage, a second sentence is needed.
“You should stay,” Sarah said. She kissed a line up to Evan’s jaw.
Now you have two declarations of a person in as many sentences. Chunky. It’s just as easy to take out the middle part and keep the sentence clean:
“You should stay.” Sarah kissed a line up to Evan’s jaw.
That brings us back to action tags.
“Action tags are actions of the speaker,
which are placed in the same paragraph
as the line of dialogue.“
If you do find yourself in need of a dialogue tag, here are a few “showing, not telling” dialogue tag issues to avoid, along with an example:
- Use either an action beat or a dialogue tag, not both. (“You should stay,” Sarah said, kissing a line up to Evan’s jaw.) Sarah is either talking, or kissing. You can’t do both at the same time.
- Avoid the use of actions or facial expressions as a dialogue tag. (“You should stay,” Sarah smiled.) A facial expression or action isn’t equivalent to a verb, so this is incorrect.
- In the same line: you can only say things with your mouth, so “she said with a smile,” or laugh, or gasp, or anything else, is impossible.
- Avoid adverbial tags; let the words speak. (“You should stay,” Sarah said seductively.) As we have seen, kissing along Evan’s jaw is a much more effective way to show the reader that Sarah is playing the seduction game.
“Use either an action beat or a
dialogue tag, not both.”
Another issue concerning dialogue tags: do you use a comma, or a period? Dialogue tags are linking verbs, which means that they require a direct object to link to. In dialogue, the dialogue itself is the direct object, so a proper dialogue tag uses a comma, not a period. The dialogue tag is also not capitalized, unless it’s a proper name. If you use a period, the direct object becomes its own sentence. The result is that the dialogue tag becomes an incomplete sentence, which is bad grammar.
If your dialogue includes an exclamation point or question mark, the above still applies. The exclamation point or question mark replaces the comma. The dialogue tag is not capitalized.
“Would you like to stay?” she said.
If you start with a dialogue tag, and the dialogue that follows includes the start of a sentence, the dialogue gets capitalized. Everything inside the quotation marks is its own sentence, so you’re creating a sentence within a sentence. Thus, there are two beginnings of sentences, so two words need to be capitalized. You can see an example of this in the “before” example above.
“Dialogue tags are linking verbs,
which means that they require a
direct object to link to.”
Using dialogue tags should be more like a game of tag than “Simon says.” Their purpose is to tag sentences together, not to insert the character’s name everywhere. Dialogue tags are like punctuation marks; they should be invisible, guide the reader, but they should never get in the way of the story. Do your reader, and your editor, a favor and weed them out as much as possible. You’ll rarely need them, if you have actions to describe.