When I comb through my second drafts, I look specifically for my dialogue tag use. It’s something that’s really easy to overlook but changes the way your writing sounds DRASTICALLY. When I first started writing, my use of dialogue tags was very minimal, but that’s changed. My old usage of dialogue tags was confusing and left out a lot of information. I’ve found that it’s a balance… somewhere in between not saying he said, she said, they said, he said over and over and not including any of that information at all. It’s hard! So… pardon me while I eat a piece of cake and walk you through what I’ve learned.
How do I use dialogue tags?
Grab a thesaurus, use creative dialogue tags, get rid of your adverbs, and use tags only when necessary. Dialogue tags are your best friend, but can easily become redundant. By using “said” over and over in your work, you may rely on adverbs too much to make your writing interesting. If you’re not using dialogue tags at all, your work can become confusing for your readers because they won’t know who’s talking. If you use them too much, you’re at the risk of bogging your reader down. It’s a fine line to walk, but I’ve prepared some tips to help you get the best use out of your dialogue tags, as well as included a list of some great words to use instead of “said.”
What is a dialogue tag?
Dialogue tags are phrases that go after dialogue to indicate who is speaking and how they said what they said. “Dialogue tags will really help you improve your writing,” Braidy said. In this case, “Braidy said” is the dialogue tag! By using this phrase, we know who’s speaking and how it was said.
Any verb that involves speaking can be used as a dialogue tag like grunted, shouted, cried, etc. You can also use dialogue tags in any order, such as “Braidy said” or “said Braidy.” Depending on your style, you’ll find yourself using one over the other. I personally never use “said Braidy” though it works well in some children’s literature.
Any synonym for said works depending on what you need to get across in the sentence, and they’re pretty versatile. I love dialogue tags and feel like they’re something that’s overlooked in a lot of writing! If you can polish your dialogue tags, you can really make your conversations shine.
When should I use a dialogue tag?
My rule of thumb is that dialogue tags should be only used when indicating that a new character is speaking. For example, let’s say we have three characters in a room arguing. We’ll put Liz, Boris, and Rolo, three siblings from my Braidy von Althuis books, in a room and have them fight about who’s going to the grocery store. Liz and Rolo are the most vocal in the argument, and Boris only steps in when necessary. I imagine the conversation would go a little something like this…
“I am not going to the grocery store, Rolo,” Liz spat. “It’s your turn to go this week. I went last week.”
“Awe, c’mon, Liz!” Rolo pleaded. “I have a date with Susan Suthersby tonight and I–”
“You should’ve thought about that when you made the date night plans. You knew you had chores to do.”
“I’ll pay you to do them. How’s twenty bucks?”
“Rolo you’re such an idiot,” Liz said. “You think you can just buy me? I’ve been working all day.”
“I’m not an idiot!” Rolo retorted. “I just have better things to do than sit around the house and play maid.”
“Would you two stop it?” Boris interjected. “If you two don’t can it I’ll walk to the grocery store.”
As you can see from my example, you can get rid of dialogue tags if the same characters are having a back and forth. This only works, however, when there are two characters speaking. As soon as a third person enters the conversations, use tags to differentiate them. If you have two characters and one of them switches tone, change the dialogue tag.
“Boris, you know you can’t go to the store,” Liz scolded.
“I’ll do what I please.”
“You and Rolo are going to be the death of me,” Liz huffed.
Even then, in this particular example, I think this is personally too many dialogue tags. How many you use is up to you, but I like to give my readers a visual break so the dialogue flows quickly and smoothly. Dialogue tags break up the flow of the dialogue and effectively act as a speed bump for the reader. If you remove the tags, the dialogue hits the reader rapid fire and if you add the tags they are forced to slow down.
Dramatic dialogue tag placement can also benefit your novel greatly. In my example above, I have a lot of dialogue tags in the middle of the dialogue itself. If there are large blocks of dialogue, you can use tags to break it up a little bit.
“Look, do you have any idea how hard I’ve worked to get a date with Su? There were like fifteen other guys in line ahead of me and I had to fight all of ‘em to get her to go to the movies with me,” Rolo said. “Jimmy Anderson nearly broke my teeth trying to get a swing at me and Tony Parks purposefully sabotaged notes I was leaving her. I need to go on this date.”
You can also use dialogue tags in the middle to be dramatic.
“I,” Liz replied, “could literally care less.”
The last way to use dialogue tags is to literally not use them at all. You can use description instead. As long as the description uses the name of the character that’s speaking and an action, you’re good to go!
“You never let me do what I want!” Rolo slammed the refrigerator door open. “Look! We have plenty of food!”
Use dialogue tags this way to really spice up your writing!
Why should I use a variety of dialogue tags?
Using said over and over can get incredibly boring and you can lose your readers that way. You start to use adverbs to describe how your characters sound. “I don’t want to go to the grocery store,” Rolo said madly. That sounds silly, doesn’t it? “I don’t want to go to the grocery store,” Rolo whined. Much better. By getting rid of the sticky adverbs and replacing said with a much stronger word will make your writing sparkle.
Now, said is still going to be your best friend. There are a lot of instances in which said is actually the best option. It gets the job done and is quick and easy to read. If you’re not careful, your dialogue will sound terrible and overdone. My favorite example of terrible dialogue tags comes from the ever infamous Harry Potter fanfiction My Immortal. You can find this terrible example in Chapter 6.
“My name’s Harry Potter, although most people call me Vampire these days.” he grumbled.
“Why?” I exclaimed.
“Because I love the taste of human blood.” he giggled.
“Well, I am a vampire.” I confessed.
“Really?” he whimpered.
“Yeah.” I roared.
*vomits into a trashcan*
So, not only are there a bunch of problems going on here grammatically, there are WAY too many dialogue tags. Said in this instance would be JUST fine.
Dialogue Tag Examples
Hopefully, all of these examples will give you all a soundboard to use. Be sure when picking the dialogue tags that you pick ones that fit your dialogue best. Whimpered is not the same as sobbed. Imagine someone saying your lines out loud and what they would sound like. Then, pick the dialogue tag that best suits the situation!
What are your favorite dialogue tags to use and who do you think uses them best? Good luck, thanks for reading, and happy writing!