He Said, She Said: How to Use Dialog Tags in Writing

hesaidTag words are verbs that attribute dialog to the speaker. The most common tag is “said,” but there are many, many words you can chose from. Your character can whisper, sing, shout, yell, report, summarize, surmise, affirm, reaffirm, suggest, inform, renounce, repeat, and declare, just to name a few. There is only one main rule regarding the use of tags.

All Tags Must Be A Form of Speech!

Do not have your character “grin” his words. Do not write, “Hello, darling,” he grinned. Try it. Make a great, big grin and hold that expression while trying to speak. It doesn’t work! It comes out more as a grimace. It isn’t pretty. Writers do this all the time – but it’s still wrong. Do not allow your characters to “laugh” their words either. Use a tag word that implies speech, and use that instead. Your character can then laugh or grin when he’s all done talking.

Right way:
“Hello, darling,” he whispered, leaning in to steal a kiss.

Some authors feel that the only tag word you should ever use is “said.” That’s a matter of opinion. In contemporary romance novels, it is acceptable to use a variety of tag words – but not too many.

Write Dialog Without Tags

It is not always necessary to use a tag word at all. There are two ways to write dialog without using tags. The first is what I call the “ping-pong” method. You can use it when there are only two people talking. One speaks, then the other, then the first one again. Just use dialog, enclosed with quotation marks, and change to new paragraphs every time the speaker changes. Do this no more than three times. Then insert a tag, so the reader doesn’t get confused about who is speaking. Then you can have three more lines without a tag. You can continue this as long as necessary, although long, long passages of straight dialog can slow your story down, adversely affecting your plot.

The second method for dropping tags is to use prose. Write something about the first character’s thoughts or actions. In that same paragraph, have him say something, ending the dialog with a period and closing quotation marks, and no tag. Then in a new paragraph, have the other speaker think something or do something, then say something without a tag word. This style of writing works for some authors. Other authors never use it. I’ve seen romance author Debbie Macomber use this technique quite well.

Do Not Use Too Many Tags In Dialog

Here is a love scene between a man and a woman. I intentionally used too many tags, just to show how silly it sounds. Read this out loud, if you don’t agree. Aloud, the tags seem even more ridiculous.

“Darling, I love you,” he whispered.
“Oh, yes! I love you, too,” she exclaimed.
“You’ve made me so very happy,” he breathed.
“Me, too,” she insisted.

I used whispered, exclaimed, breathed and insisted. They are all forms of speech, but used back to back like that, they are silly. This is terrible writing! The dialog isn’t really that bad, but the tag words spoil it. For one thing, it is redundant to use an exclamation point and the tag word, “exclaimed.” Now, I’ll use the same dialog, but drop some of the tags, inserting description instead. See how much better this sounds?

Cole knelt before her, drawing a small velvet box from his pocket. His expression was tortured, uncertain. With trembling hands, he lifted the lid to reveal a stunning diamond ring. “Darling, I love you,” he whispered.

“Oh, yes! I love you, too!” Lila clasped her hands together and tucked them beneath her chin, as if she were praying. Joyful tears hovered on her eyelashes.

Cole reached for her right hand and tenderly slipped the delicate ring on her finger. “You’ve made me so very happy.”

“Me, too.” She reached up to dry her eyes, then threw her arms around his neck and kissed him thoroughly.

Tags Can Help Reveal Your Characters

The tag words you choose can help reveal personality traits. A grumpy character might snap, grumble or hiss. A bossy character might direct, inform, or command. A quiet character might whisper, lisp, or mumble. Be careful though to vary the tags. If your hero is constantly grumbling, your readers might wonder if he is part bear or ogre. If your heroine is always breathless, your readers may wonder if she has asthma.

Here is a quote from the classic novel, Little Women. The author has used four different tags to identify the four sisters. She has used “grumbled, sighed, added,” and “said contentedly.” This is a wonderful example of tags well done.

“Christmas won’t be Christmas without any presents,” grumbled Jo, lying on the rug.

“It’s so dreadful to be poor!” sighed Meg, looking down at her old dress.

“I don’t think it’s fair for some girls to have plenty of pretty things, and other girls nothing at all,” added Amy, with an injured sniff.

“We’ve got Father and Mother, and each other,” said Beth contentedly from her corner.

Use Adverbs with Tags Sparingly

Adverbs modify verbs. They often tell us “how” a verb is done. He said gravely, she said cheerfully, they shouted angrily, the child whispered fearfully. This is not wrong… but if you use too many adverbs, you are “telling” us the story, instead of showing. Don’t tell us that he said it angrily – show us through his thoughts and actions. Don’t tell us that she said it cheerfully – let us discover that she is cheerful through her thoughts or “inner dialog.”

Which is better?

“Your mother is dead,” he said gravely.

Or —

John stood in the doorway, his arms hung limp at his sides. His eyes were expressionless, only the slight twitch in his jaw indicated the tightly reigned emotion simmering just below the surface. He cleared his throat, stopped, and tried again. “Your mother is dead.”

Since this is so very important, I’m going to give a second example:

“You’re fired,” she said cheerfully.

Or —

Ella clenched her teeth to keep from saying something crude at the young man’s complete ineptitude. He’d only been hired because he was the owner’s nephew – otherwise he never would have made it past the initial interview. But this… this was the last straw! Finally, he’d done something so bizarre, so completely insane, that she could fire him and get away with it. It was the high point of her day!
“You’re fired,” she said.

Type ly and a space into the find/replace feature of your word processing program. How many adverbs have you used? See if you could delete half of them by replacing the single adverb with a few sentences of prose. Your story will be richer and more interesting for it.

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