Fiction essentials: how to use dialogue tags

Dialogue tags can cause headaches for many authors, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Dialogue tags are (usually) essential when writing fiction, and good use can really elevate the prose. Perhaps the most important thing to consider here is that the core function of a dialogue tag is to indicate which character is speaking. It will be helpful to keep this in mind as we explore my advice on how to use dialogue tags – and how to use them effectively.


Placement

Dialogue tags can be used before, after, or in the middle of direct speech. Here’s an example of each style:

  • Melissa said, ‘That’s my chocolate cake.’
  • ‘That’s my chocolate cake,’ said Melissa.
  • ‘That,’ Melissa said, ‘is my chocolate cake.’

Note the placement of the commas and full stops in relation to the quote marks. I’m sure you will also have detected the pacing change brought about by the third example (helped along by the removal of the contraction) – this is a good tool to have in your pocket, especially when you want to create emphasis.


Embrace ‘said’

I know there is writing advice out there that will tell you to avoid ‘said’. I think that’s a mistake. ‘Said’ is so common, so conventional, that it is almost invisible to most readers. That’s what you want – most of the time. We don’t want the reader to be thinking about the dialogue tags – we want them to be thinking about the content of the dialogue and what it means for the story and the characters.

[…] too many variants on ‘said’ can become noticeable; the reader ends up focusing on the author’s language, rather than on what’s being said. ‘Said’, on the other hand, is so commonly used in both speech and writing that it’s virtually invisible.
On Editing: How to edit your novel the professional way (2018), Helen Corner-Bryant and Kathryn Price, p. 125


Avoid overuse

‘Said’ might be essentially invisible when used sparingly but that doesn’t mean that it should be attached to every single bit of speech. Take this as an example:

‘I’ve put the pie in the oven,’ he said.
‘Thank you,’ she said.
‘I think the blueberries will be nice,’ he said.
‘Yes. I’ll make some custard to go with it,’ she said.

I know that’s not the most riveting dialogue, but it gives you an idea of how dreary and frustrating that sort of use can be. It wouldn’t be much better if we used a variety of tags. In fact, it might be worse. Imagine:

‘I’ve put the pie in the oven,’ he stated.
‘Thank you,’ she responded.
‘I think the blueberries will be nice,’ he declared.
‘Yes. I’ll make some custard to go with it,’ she trilled.

A good way to spot if your use of dialogue tags has become distracting is to read the text aloud or use a text-to-speech program (the latest version of Word has one built in – it’s called Read Aloud and you can find it on the Review tab).

As I said earlier, the core function of a dialogue tag is to indicate which character is speaking. If there are no more than two characters in the scene, you can usually trust the reader to keep track of who is saying what, with only the occasional tag or action beat to act as a reminder. Limit your use of tags to where they are actually needed.


Beware of double-tell

If the dialogue tag is repeating what the reader already knows, that is double-tell. You can get away with this, usually, with ‘asked’ and ‘replied’ – like ‘said’, they are so common that they are generally invisible.

‘What an incredible sight!’ Joey exclaimed.

‘I will make sure that we find the culprit. You have my word,’ Emma promised.

In both of these examples, the dialogue has done the work already and the tag is redundant. Trust in the dialogue you have constructed and reduce the signposting for the reader – it will make for a much more immersive experience.


Avoid tags that steal focus

Many double-tell tags also fall into this category: dialogue tags that are obtrusive and overwhelm the dialogue they are supposed to be supporting.

‘You see! I told you he was a villain!’ Gregory trumpeted.

‘I am extremely displeased! Who do you think you are? I will have your job, Perkins,’ he vociferated.

The reader is now thinking about ‘vociferated’ and not about how poor old Perkins is going to get out of the pickle he finds himself in.

You don’t have to – and shouldn’t – always stick with the reliably unobtrusive ‘said’, but I would recommend thinking very carefully about whether you need to use those more ostentatious tags. Why use ‘vociferated’ when ‘shouted’ will do?


Make sure they are about speaking

Dialogue tags should be about the mechanics of speaking – they should reflect something about the speech, not what the speaker’s body is doing.

‘I absolutely love it,’ she smiled.

‘I see what you mean,’ Gareth nodded.

That’s not to say that you shouldn’t convey this sort of thing around the dialogue – in fact, you definitely should. It will help ground the dialogue and bring life to your characters.

‘I absolutely love it.’ She smiled.

‘I see what you mean,’ Gareth replied, nodding.

Here are some other words it’s best to avoid using as dialogue tags: laughed, snorted, sneered, giggled, frowned, grinned, gesticulated, wept, glowered, smirked, gulped, shrugged, swaggered.

There are some that I consider occasionally acceptable in very limited circumstances (although other editors would disagree), such as laugh and sigh. You certainly can’t laugh or sigh a whole sentence, but you might be able to do it for a single word.

‘Yes,’ Penelope sighed. ‘We got the news.’


Why does it matter?

Dialogue tags are mechanical – they exist to serve the story by indicating who is speaking. They are essential for good writing, but if they overwhelm or distract from the dialogue, they can damage the storytelling. The aim to keep in mind is that the dialogue tags should support the dialogue and allow the reader to remain immersed in the experience you have created for them.

Hannah McCall is a line-editor, copy-editor and proofreader who specialises in working with independent authors and publishers of commercial fiction, particularly speculative fiction. She is an Advanced Professional Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP) and a Partner Member of The Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi).

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