Monday, August 1, 2011

"Leave Out Those Dialogue Tags," She Said Firmly.

Dialogue tags in fiction (she said, he asked) are simply attributions that let the reader know who’s speaking.  Some writers, as part of their writing style use tags for rhythm or balance in a sentence, but, really, they don’t have many other uses. And almost always are overused.

Tags should always be simple and basic. Said and asked are the most obvious and most used tags. There is seldom a reason to use anything else (i.e. melodramatic dialogue tags such as exclaimed, murmured, shouted, whimpered, asserted, inquired, demanded, queried, thundered, whispered, and muttered). These others detract from the dialogue. If the dialogue is strong enough, "she said" and "he said" will do. If the dialogue is not strong enough, REWRITE the dialogue instead of using exaggerated tags to reinforce it.

You can use these flamboyant tags once in a while, but think of them as those little cupcakes at Starbucks. Eating one occasionally won’t do much harm, but eating dozens will add unnecessary and unsightly weight. Like the cupcakes, use these phrases carefully and only on special occasions.  


1.       Using a verb to describe an expression and then trying to force it into becoming a dialogue tag. Don’t do it. It won't work. People don't sneer, grin, chuckle, and frown their words. Consider this line of dialogue: "I’ll never let you go," the wicked witch snickered. Even the most notorious villain doesn't know how to snicker a line of dialogue.

I know what you’re thinking: My protagonist has to snicker! It’s in her nature.

So try this instead: The wicked witch snickered. "I'll never let you go." Don't worry about the ascription. As long as the action is kept with its dialogue, the reader will work out who said what.

2.       Inserting an adverb to the back of a dialogue tag. The first rule is to leave out the adverbial dialogue tag if it adds nothing to the dialogue. If the character's words are already heated, there is no need to insert the word "crossly" or “irritably” after the she said and he said.

Remember the advice: show, don’t tell? This is telling at its worst. SHOW a character raging or crying or acting feisty. Don’t tell us. And don’t tell us via dialogue tag. The key is to use the tag only when necessary. Once you’ve identified one speaker, the reader should be able to go several lines of dialogue without requiring another identifier. Your characters will have diverse speech patterns, vocabulary, and will lean toward a specific side of a subject or conflict. Give your readers some credit; they’ll be able to keep up if you write the scene well.


  1. Make sure you don't have talking heads either though. That becomes confusing for a reader.

  2. Michael, I agree. I've planned my next post to cover more about using action attributions to replace dialogue tags. Thanks for your input!

  3. I will be looking forward to the next post. This type of advice is very useful for revisions.