Dialogue tagBefore we get started, let’s make sure we’re on the same page.

A dialogue tag is the phrase that tells you who is speaking—the classic, of course, is he said. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to make sure the reader always knows who is speaking. That’s important in a book. There are no dialogue tags in a movie, because you can see (or sometimes just hear) who is speaking. But you can’t see or hear who’s speaking in a book, so the dialogue tags help you out.

But be very clear: a dialogue tag is like a punctuation mark—it needs to do its job without being noticed. It needs to let the reader focus on what’s being said, not on the tags.

The dialogue tag should guide the reader, but it should never get in the way of the story. Stay focused on the function of the tag: to let you know who is speaking. That’s all. It’s not the dialogue tag’s job to set the mood, tell the story, or predict what’s coming next. Try to do those things, and you’ll come across as an amateur.

Keep in mind, too, that you don’t always need a tag. If you’re doing a good job with your writing, you can (and should) often skip the tag altogether. We’ll talk about that in a minute.

With just three simple rules, you can use dialogue tags like a pro! (Adapted from Novel Writing Help, https://www.novel-writing-help.com/dialogue-tags.html)


WhisperingRule #1—Whenever possible, simply use said

Why? Because readers won’t notice it, meaning it won’t slow them down.

What about times when said just doesn’t convey your precise meaning? In those cases, use the simplest verb you can find to get that meaning across:

  • she asked
  • he mumbled
  • she whispered
  • he shouted

Let’s be very clear, though: those tags are fine to use occasionally and only when a character really is asking or mumbling or whispering or shouting, and it’s important to the story that the reader understand.

Oh, but I like to use fancy words, you might be thinking. Doesn’t that make me look like a more creative writer?

Uh-uh. On the contrary. So stifle the temptation to use tags like:

  • he thundered
  • she exclaimed
  • he boomed
  • she purred

After all, a really good writer uses the dialogue itself or the way the character is acting to indicate exactly how the words are being spoken.


Rule #2—Never Use an Adverb WITH a Tag

Pouting girlOkay; there might be a rare exception. But that would be RARE.

Here are some real gems as examples of what you should avoid:

  • he said imploringly
  • she bellowed triumphantly
  • he exclaimed loudly
  • she mumbled poutingly
  • he said heartily
  • he said excitedly
  • she groused dejectedly
  • he thundered desperately

Using adverbs with tags means you’re telling, not showing—a cardinal sin in writing. It cheats your readers out of experiencing the story from the character’s point of view. Let your reader know what’s going on in all sorts of other ways. Here’s a perfect example:

“My dog just died,” he said sadly.

First of all, the word sadly is unnecessary. Nobody ever happily chirped when saying his beloved pet just died. But what if a simple “he said” is won’t do the trick, because you need to really emphasize the character’s sorrow?

In a case like that, show the reader how sad your character is. Like this:

“My dog just died,” he said, not looking up from the floor as he spoke.

Or, “My dog just died,” he said, trying to hide the tears that spilled down his cheeks.


Rule #3—Use as Few Dialogue Tags as Possible

Remember, a tag’s sole purpose is to let the reader know who is speaking. In most dialogue, you only have to do that every three or four lines. Here’s a great example:

“Hi,” said Robby.

“How’s it going?” asked Katie

“Great. You going to the dance tonight?”

“I am!”

“Could I swing by and pick you up?”

You can also let the reader know who’s speaking by using the characters’ names in the dialogue—but only occasionally, and only where it makes sense (usually at the beginning and near the end).

Here’s a good example:

“I’m not sure why you’re proposing that particular solution, Phil,” said Sam.

“I’ve studied it out, and I think it makes the most sense.”

“I’m not familiar with exactly what you studied, but I have some serious reservations.”

“I appreciate your feedback, Sam. Maybe we could talk it over after the meeting.”

Another way to avoid dialogue tags is to mix some action into the dialogue. Consider this example:

“Want to go out to dinner?” I asked.

“If you want to,” said Helen.

“Or we could stay in. We’ve still got those meatballs in the fridge.”

Helen pointed to Belle, who was snoring in front of the fire. “Hey, we’re out of dog food, and Belle loves meatballs!”

“I’ll phone the restaurant,” I said.

And don’t forget context! There are plenty of situations when no dialogue tags or names are needed at all simply because of what’s happening and who’s speaking. Take, for example, this conversation between a grandmother and her grandson:

Children holding hands“You found a girlfriend yet?”

“Nope. Still looking.”

“You’d better look harder. All the pretty ones’ll be gone!”

“There’s no rush.”

“Your grandad snapped me up when I was fifteen.”

“Yeah? Well I’m only thirteen.”

“That’s exactly how old your grandad was!”


To sum it all up, use dialogue tags well, and your writing will soar. Use them badly, and you’ll look like an amateur who doesn’t know what you’re doing.

We’ve given you three rules, and they apply 99 percent of the time. The other 1 percent? That’s up to you. Ultimately, as with everything else in writing, it comes down to learning the rules and then trusting your ear. If your dialogue tags sound right, go for it!

(Photos: top, psikids.es; whispering, Lifehack; pout, Pinterest; children holding hands, Flickr)


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