If you are writing fiction, you are likely going to encounter dialogue. And where there is dialogue there are dialogue tags. This article explores how to properly use dialogue tags in fiction.
What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags are primarily functional; they are meant to identify who is speaking.
- When a character speaks, their dialogue should be on the same line as the dialogue tag or action beat.
- Punctuation of the dialogue should go inside the closing quotation mark.
- When a new character speaks, start a new line.
How to Properly Use Dialogue Tags in Fiction
1. Keep them simple
Said is often the best dialogue tag to use because it is unobtrusive; your readers will not notice it and will instead focus on what matters, the dialogue itself.
Using simple rather than showy dialogue tags is important so that the focus remains on the dialogue rather than the tag. A showy tag can overwhelm your dialogue and usually means that you need to develop your dialogue so that it shows your readers what you are telling them with the dialogue tag.
Showy rather than simple tags can also lead to double-telling, where the dialogue tag tells the reader what the reader already knows from the dialogue itself. In that case, said is a better option because it is less invasive and will remain invisible, letting the focus remain on the dialogue.
“Stand down, soldier! That’s an order,” the general commanded.
It is clear from the dialogue that a command is being given by the speaker. The dialogue tag commanded, tells the reader what they already know. Said is a better, less invasive alternative.
When said is not enough
There may be times when said is not enough because you want to convey the sound quality, the mood of the speech, or the tone of voice. In that case, you might use a more descriptive dialogue tag. If you do, you want to use the simplest alternative possible, such as asked, whispered, or muttered. I personally don’t mind hissed, but other writers and editors might disagree. In certain genres, such as romance, tags such as breathed or sighed might also be acceptable. Alternatives to said should be used sparingly. You don’t want a character that is constantly muttering.
2. Avoid overusing adverbs
Sometimes an adverb might better suit your meaning or as I will discuss below, is one way to properly use non-speech-based verbs. However, you will want to use adverbs sparingly and avoid dressing up your dialogue too much. It can be distracting and is a classic example of telling rather than showing. Instead of telling your reader that a character said it sarcastically, show your reader that he said it sarcastically.
3. Use as few dialogue tags as possible
While there is nothing wrong with repeating said throughout the book itself, you want to avoid repeating said or any dialogue tag really, after every expression. Don’t overcomplicate your dialogue passages by tagging every sentence.
“Let’s go grab a coffee,” said Amy.
“Sure. I could use a break from this paper,” Sarah said.
“Great. Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts?” said Amy.
“Starbucks,” said Sarah.
Try this instead:
“Let’s go grab a coffee,” said Amy.
Sarah stood up and grabbed her wallet off her desk. “Sure. I could use a break from this paper.”
“Great. Starbucks or Dunkin Donuts?”
“Starbucks,” Sarah said.
4. Don’t use non-speech-based dialogue tags
Regardless of what dialogue tags you choose to use, you will want to avoid using verbs that do not relate to the mechanics of speaking. Examples include: smiled, laughed, scowled, frowned, and smirked.
A person cannot smile or laugh a sentence. These verbs describe what the person is physically doing, but are not suitable as dialogue tags. Instead, try action beats or an adverb.
Incorrect: “Are you seriously going to wear that?” she laughed.
Correct: She laughed. “Are you seriously going to wear that?” or “Are you seriously going to wear that?” she said, laughing.
5. Mix up dialogue tag location
Try mixing up where you place the tag—before, during, and after the dialogue. You can also switch between “Amy said” and “said Amy”.
Remember the function of the dialogue tag: to identify which character is speaking. They are meant to be invisible and the dialogue itself should take the spotlight.
When writing dialogue and self-editing:
- Make sure your tags are performing their intended function rather than taking the spotlight
- Show with your dialogue rather than tell with a dialogue tag
- Don’t tag speech with non-speech-based dialogue tags