Dialogue is a massively important component of storytelling. It conveys information, tells the reader about the characters, and even provides some white space on the page to help with reader fatigue.
And with dialogue comes dialogue tags. There are certain conventions and rules to follow when it comes to these tags. And if you want to present the best book possible to your readers, it's a good idea to know the ins and outs of dialogue tags.
- What dialogue tags are.
- Why dialogue tags are important.
- How to use dialogue tags effectively (and what to avoid).
- Punctuation rules for dialogue tags.
Table of contents
- What is a Dialogue Tag?
- Why Dialogue Tags Matter
- Tips for Using Dialogue Tags
- Punctuating Dialogue Tags
- Dialogue Tags: Conclusion
What is a Dialogue Tag?
Sometimes called a speech tag or speaker attribution, a dialogue tag is simply a way to tell the reader which character is speaking a line of dialogue.
Here's an example:
“I don't see anything,” Reggie said.
“It's right behind you!” yelled Trina.
In this example, “Reggie said” and “yelled Trina” are both dialogue tags. They make clear who is speaking in Reggie's case, and who is yelling in Trina's.
Pretty simple, right? Well, there are many ways to mess up when writing dialogue tags. And there are some conventions you'll probably want to follow. Let's take a look at why they're important before we get into some basic rules of dialogue tags.
Why Dialogue Tags Matter
If you've ever read a long scene without dialogue tags, then you probably know why they're important. It can be easy to lose track of who's talking without speech tags. You find yourself flipping back a page to find the last dialogue tag, and then re-reading the section to keep straight which character is saying what—especially when more than two characters are talking.
This is definitely something to avoid. After all, there are only so many times a reader can be pulled out of the story before they put the book down in frustration. Luckily, fixing this is simple.
Tips for Using Dialogue Tags
The following tips can help you avoid dialogue tag pitfalls that even some experienced writers have trouble with.
Keep it Simple
The word “said” is your best friend during dialogue in your book. Some people worry that using “said” too often gets repetitive for the reader, but in most genres, this isn’t the case. Essentially, “said” is invisible to readers. They see it, but they don't really register it as a new word.
Think about the last time you read a dialogue scene. You probably didn't even notice the word “said.” And if you did, it's likely because you were thinking as a writer.
The words “asked” and “replied” are also common, although they're not used as much as “said.”
While you should only use as many dialogue tags as necessary, it's very difficult to overuse “said,” in your book. It's only when writers try to get fancy with their dialogue tags that things tend to backfire.
Use Other Verbs Sparingly
While it's true that writing the word “said” repeatedly in your dialogue scene can get old, be mindful of using other verbs. Writing dialogue tags like, “he huffed,” “she snorted,” “he bellowed,” or “she pouted” could distract the reader from the dialogue between characters.
Sometimes called descriptive tags, these can be used sparingly to great effect in the occasional dialogue scene. A descriptive tag is one that uses a descriptive word in place of the verbs commonly used. Here's an example:
“I don't see anything,” Reggie balked.
“It's right behind you!” Trina keened.
That's not to say that doing this on occasion is a no-no. The best thing to do is stick close to genre conventions. If other authors in your genre often use descriptive tags, then they may be common and okay to use. Otherwise, it's good to stick to the verbs readers are used to:
Also, varying the location of your “said” dialogue tags can also do a lot to provide variety. You have three places to put dialogue tags: the beginning, middle, and end of the dialogue.
Beware of Adverbs in Your Dialogue Tags
Chances are you've heard advice from writers like Stephen King (and many others) about using adverbs in your fiction. The popular sentiment is that you should use them sparingly. And this goes for dialogue, as well.
Adverbial tags are those that include adverbs in the tag. Here's an example:
“I don't see anything,” Reggie said angrily.
“It's right behind you!” yelled Trina frantically.
Good dialogue should speak for itself without the use of adverbs. The reader should be able to tell from context or other descriptions that Reggie is angry, or that Trina is frantic.
That's not to say you should never use them. Every once in a while, an adverbial tag might just be the perfect thing for the scene. Just don't fall into the habit of overusing them.
Use Action Tags
There are other ways to tell the reader who's speaking than using “he said,” or “she replied.” One of the best involves the use of action before, during, or after the dialogue. These are called action tags. Here are a couple of examples:
Reggie squinted into the darkness. “I don't see it.”
Trina pointed. “It's right behind you!”
Although you don't explicitly say that the character is speaking, it's implied through the use of action and proper dialogue formatting. While you probably wouldn't want to use action tags repeatedly in the same scene, using them every so often is a great way to tell your reader who's doing the talking without spelling it out for them. Just remember that action tags are full sentences, and they should be treated as such.
Put Dialogue Tags Where You Need Them
As mentioned earlier, the most common error with dialogue tags is not using enough of them. The last thing you want is for the reader to get confused about who's talking. And since “said” is all but invisible to readers, you don’t have to worry about overusing it.
While you certainly don't need to put a dialogue tag on every single line, it's a good idea to use enough so that there's no way your readers will get lost. Here's an example:
“When did you last see him?” the detective asked, looking at Jessica.
“We're not answering any questions without a lawyer,” Dolly said.
The detective ignored her, raising an eyebrow at the younger woman. “Ma'am?”
Jessica crossed her arms and looked up, thinking. “Wednesday, I guess. Maybe Tuesday.”
“Oh, stop it, Mother. He's just trying to do his job.”
“And was that here?” the detective asked. “At the house?”
In this example, you can tell from context who's doing the talking. You don't need a dialogue tag on every line, but it's always good to err on the side of caution. For example, leaving out the last tag might still have been clear to some readers, but it's teetering on the edge of having too few.
Punctuating Dialogue Tags
Now let's look at the rules for punctuating dialogue tags. Unlike many of the conventions above, these rules should be followed at all times. It’s also a good idea to learn about how to format dialogue, which you can check out in our article on formatting dialogue.
Note: These rules are for writing American English. Rules may differ for writing in other forms of English.
Commas, Question Marks, and Exclamation Points
When it comes to dialogue punctuation before an attribution tag, the comma, question mark, and exclamation point are all treated the same. That is, they should always be inside the closing quotation mark and the first letter of the dialogue tag should only be capitalized if it's a proper noun.
In normal writing, the question mark and exclamation mark act is a period would, but this is not the case with dialogue. Let's take a look at a few examples.
“When did you last see him?” the detective asked.
Note that “the” isn't capitalized because this is a dialogue tag and is treated as one sentence.
“I don't see anything,” he said.
“It's right behind you!” yelled Trina.
In these two examples, you see the same rule at play. Neither “he” nor “yelled” are capitalized. Now, it would be different if the proper noun came directly afterward, like this:
“I don't see anything,” Reggie said.
Of course, the one common punctuation mark you never want to use before a dialogue tag is a period. Like this:
“I don't see anything.” he said.
Tags Before Dialogue
We've covered tags after dialogue, but what about tags before dialogue? The rules are slightly different here. Really, you just need to remember to always use a comma and that the beginning of the dialogue is treated like a new sentence. Here are a couple of examples:
Reggie said, “I don't see anything.”
She yelled, “It's right behind you!”
Whether you place your tag before or after the dialogue line is mostly a question of style, but the use of commas and capitalization at the beginning of the spoken sentence are rules that shouldn't be broken. Whether it's a proper noun or not, the first letter inside the opening quotation mark should be capitalized.
But what if you have a line of dialogue split by a dialogue tag? If so, then the second portion of the dialogue doesn't need to be capitalized—unless it's a proper noun. For example:
“Well,” Victor said, “it's about time you showed me where you hid all that money.”
Of course, if the two lines are complete sentences, then it will be as if you're starting a whole new sentence. Like this:
“Well, okay,” Victor said. “But I think it's about time you showed me where you hid all that money.”
Quotes Within Quotes
In American English writing, we always use double quotation marks “ ” for dialogue. And when we want to write about someone quoting someone else, we use single quotation marks ‘ ’. Like this:
“What did he say?” Mark asked.
“Oh, you're not going to believe this,” Whitney whispered. “He said, ‘There’s nothing wrong with the way I see, and I'll have you know I can get up and down the stairs just fine.' I mean, can you believe it? After breaking both hips!”
Mark shook his head. “What'll we do with him?”
Dialogue Tags: Conclusion
In creative writing, it's essential to know the conventions for dialogue tags. Using appropriate punctuation becomes second nature after a while, but each writer has to decide on their own style when it comes to other factors. While the phrases “said she” and “said he” are falling out of favor in modern writing, they’re still going strong in some genres.
Likewise, the use of adverbial tags or “irregular” verbs in dialogue tags is also common in some genres.
The best thing you can do is read a lot in your genre, paying close attention to what your favorite authors do with their dialogue. Taking inspiration from them, you can develop your own style without taking the readers out of the story with too many strange dialogue tags!