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Use and Misuse of Dialogue Tags

on December 25th, 2010 by Fiction Editor Beth Hill and last modified on May 15, 2013

Dialogue tags in fictionshe said, he asked—are simply attributions; they let the reader know who is speaking.

While action can also be used for attribution—Mark reached to tug Melba’s curl. “It’s so soft.”—this article is specifically about the use and misuse of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags don’t have many uses other than keeping characters straight for the reader. Tags might be used for rhythm or balance in a sentence. Or, the way they are used might be part of a writer’s style, but for the most part, they’re markers for the reader, so we  can identify speakers in fiction.

Tags can, and should, almost 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.

Dialogue tags are used to indicate speech. While other verbs might indicate other actions, not too many are substitutes for speaking verbs.

For example, murmured and whispered are often used as dialogue tags. There is reason to argue that people can whisper and murmur words and so they can be used. Sparingly.

However, I’ve seen other words used for dialogue tags that can’t possibly work.

  • “It’s true,” he smiled.
  • “Not true,” she countered.
  • “Is so,” he spat.
  • “No, it’s not,” she snarled.

While it’s true that characters can smile, counter (speak in opposition to), spit, and snarl, it’s not true that they can do those things with words. We can smile while speaking (could be difficult), but we don’t smile words. We say them. We don’t counter words, though we may counter with an argument. We can spit and snarl, but those are actions the character performs, not what the words do.

The purpose of dialogue tags is to identify the speaker; it’s not to draw attention to the writer’s broad vocabulary. What’s important is the dialogue—that’s where the focus should go. Not to unnecessary tags.

I’ve seen arguments from writers saying that restricting tags to said and asked is boring. My counter argument is that the restriction is not boring if it keeps an editor or agent from tossing aside your manuscript.

Even worse than writing fancy dialogue tags is writing them and then pairing them with adverbs. Doing so is a poor way to add zip to a scene.

  • “I hate that dress on you,” he raged violently.
  • “Santa is here, Santa is here,” the little girl cried joyfully.
  • “I will not do it your way, not ever,” she sassed saucily.

Remember the advice to show and not tell? This is telling at its worst. Show a character raging or crying or acting sassy. Don’t tell us. And don’t tell us via dialogue tag.

*******

Many will tell you that said is almost invisible, that the reader will note it only to identify the speaker and then move on. While that is true if said is used correctly, it’s not true if the word is overused. I’ve read sections of dialogue where said is used in every line. Said is certainly not invisible then.

A writer, however, may deliberately use said again and again to create a certain effect or rhythm. It’s the unintentional overuse that you’ll want to avoid.

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 needing another identifier. Your characters will have different speech patterns, use different words, and will lean toward a certain side of a subject/conflict. Readers will be able to keep up if you write the scene well.

Also, here’s the occasion for the action attribution. Use one to break up long stretches of dialogue. The action attribution will serve at least two purposes—to identify the speaker and to add action to the scene so you don’t present talking heads to your readers. Ground those readers in time and place by giving your characters actions as they speak.

This doesn’t mean you can’t have straight sections of only dialogue—straight dialogue can be powerful—but this is just another tool for variety in your scenes.

Exception
Aren’t there always exceptions? There is one for the rule on limiting your dialogue tags to said and asked. And that exception has to do with genre and the expectations of a particular genre.

Some genres are more accepting of variety in dialogue tags, may actually promote their use. Romance is one such genre.

Romance readers, editors, and publishers do accept a wider variety of dialogue tags. It’s part of the genre and thus the tight restrictions do not apply.

However, there are still tags that don’t work, no matter what the genre. Characters don’t husk or jeer or breathe words.

  • “I love you,” he husked. (While his voice might be husky, husking is what one does with corn.)
  • “You’re nothing but a loser,” she jeered.
  • “I go to a better place,” she breathed. (People breathe air, not words.)

Better options:

  • “I love you,” he said, his normally firm voice husky with the emotion he held back.
  • “You’re nothing but a loser.” She jeered at him, belittling him in front of his brothers. “I don’t know how you thought I’d ever marry you.”
  • “I go to a better place,” she said, her voice breathy, empty of the ringing tones she’d always used to get her way.

If you insist on using creative dialogue tags, at least don’t be redundant.

  • “I hate you!” she exclaimed. (Readers catch the exclaiming part with the use of the exclamation point.)
  • “You can’t tell me n—”
    “I mean it,” she interrupted. (The interruption is obvious from the use of the dash to interrupt the other speaker’s words.)

**For a refresher on the rules for punctuating dialogue, see Punctuation in Dialogue.**

Best dialogue tags:

said, asked

Tags accepted by many:

whispered, murmured, continued, answered, added

Tags you’ve often seen but would be wise to not use:

avowed, promised, muttered, growled, returned, hollered, yelled, bellowed, contributed, snapped, snarled, spat, drawled, commanded, ordered, countered, exclaimed, retorted, commented, challenged, queried, questioned, demanded, begged, complained, exhorted, encouraged, scoffed, agreed, affirmed

Verbs to never use as tags:

husked, hissed, breathed, interrupted, gasped, hoped, smiled, chortled, chuckled, laughed, cajoled, moaned, grunted, groaned, sighed

These verbs can be used around the dialogue, if they’re appropriate. Just don’t use them as dialogue tags.

Quick list

  • Use tags only when necessary to identify the speaker or for rhythm or to create a specific effect
  • Stick to the basics, said and asked
  • Be sensitive to expectations of the genre

***

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15 Responses to “Use and Misuse of Dialogue Tags”

  1. Vivian A says:

    Fantastic advice, Beth.

  2. I’m always looking to be helpful, Vivian. Thanks.

  3. “This helped me a lot in my writing,” she told The Editor and smiled. “I don’t know if I use it correctly, but it will certainly help me much.”

    “You’ll never be good!” Her father grabbed her by the ear and pulled her with him towards the car. “You’re just a worthless old weirdo!”

    The girl pulled away from his grip and stood up straight. “Oh yes I will!” she said proudly and grinned. “Because I will keep dreaming and practicing until I get great at writing!” She turned around and walked as quickly as her legs would carry her towards the house. As she walked, she sung a small melody, “Keep dreaming! Forever and ever!”

    Sorry if it was bad or disturbed you. I just want to thank you, this was very helpful. I may not be good yet, but someday I will! :) Thank you!

  4. Anon, I’m glad you found this helpful. Your example was delightful—I hope you’ll keep working at and enjoying your writing. One day it will be more than dream, I’m sure.

  5. Wow, I never knew about breathed and moaned and that stuff . . . impressed : 0

  6. Hi, Little Writer Girl. Those dialogue tags can make a difference, can’t they? And once you think about what it is you’re saying or reading, some can make you laugh.

    Thanks for letting me know you were here.

  7. Lamb says:

    I’ve been wondering about this topic lately.

    I had sort of just accepted the advice that “said” and “asked” were the best tags to use, that a select few tags came in the “use once-in-a-while” category, and yet others were in the “do-not-use-EVER” basket.

    However, a writer I correspond with frequently uses, as tags, actions that have nothing to do with speaking. Sentences like this: “This ends when I say it ends,” he grips the hammer.

    I’ve never been asked to critique her work, so I’ve never said anything, but when I see these sentences, I always stop and consider them.

    Personally, I would end the dialogue with a period and make the “tag” a new sentence. I’m unlikely to change my style, but in these days of ever-changing language, could one not argue that rather than a dialogue/tag sentence this is a compound construction?

    Couldn’t inserting an “and” make it a legitimate compound sentence — one which uses dialogue in the first phrase and narration in the second ?

    “This ends when I say it ends,” and he grasps the hammer.

    Again, while I don’t follow the trend, I’ve noticed some writers seem happy enough to use run-on sentences (whether as a deliberate style choice or through unawareness, I don’t know) in their stories.

    If you’re happy with run-on sentences, it’s only a short leap to drop the “and” altogether and end up with the original sentence. “This ends when I say it ends,” he grasps the hammer.

    As I’ve said, I’m unlikely to change my preferences, nor am I going to raise it with this writer unless I’m asked or a philosophical discussion on dialogue tags arises organically between us.

    I’d be interested in your views on the topic though.

  8. Lamb, while language and punctuation and our use of both do evolve, at this point what your friend uses and what you suggest might come about at some point in the future is not what we currently use.

    According to current standards, meaning not only rules but the way readers read, your friend’s dialogue construction isn’t correct and could serve to confuse more than help the reader.

    While writers can try anything, we can’t fault readers for misunderstanding if we writers are the ones who buck the conventions. Punctuation serves to aid the reader and if writers use that punctuation for any purpose that suits them, readers can rightly get lost. Periods and commas have established purposes, as do words. Dialogue—and the formatting of dialogue—does too.

    So a writer can’t use the word blue in place of walk and assume readers will understand. The same holds true for changing other rules—we can’t simply change them. I’m guessing that most who don’t use the standard format for dialogue do so because they don’t understand its importance and what is conveyed by including or not including periods or commas or tags or action beats.

    Readers who’ve been reading for years understand what punctuation means. When a writer changes the standards, introducing the unexpected, readers are unnecessarily delayed as they read. They could be distracted and taken out of the fiction.

    As for adding and, that only works if and has something to join to.

    The word and joins pairs of things—nouns or verbs or clauses or whatevers. It joins people or actions. But it is a joining word. It can’t sit out there unattached to something else.

    The colors were blue and red. She sang and danced. Tom and Jerry were chased by the dog. He speaks and he grasps the hammer. “This ends when I say it ends,” he says and grasps the hammer.

    In your example, what is and joining? It should join grasp to another verb, but without the dialogue tag, there isn’t another verb. And is floating in the sentence without a connection.

    He grasps the hammer is linked by and to another action, either one performed by this same male person or someone or something else. Yet without the dialogue tag, there is no other action named. There is no other person named who is performing an action. Therefore and here doesn’t work. And then truncating the sentence, cutting out the and would also not work.

    I’m all for a writer pushing boundaries. But I’m also big on keeping the reader inside the fictional world. When the mechanical elements of a story get in the way of the fiction, something is wrong. The mechanics and the technical elements of writing should serve the fiction, make it seem fluid and seamless. When the technical elements instead draw attention to themselves and expose the real-world foundations of fiction, they are not doing their part. (Meta-fiction excepted, of course.)

    A long answer to your question, but you asked my thoughts on the subject. Anything that helps a story while at the same time keeps the reader engaged can be tried. But if the fictional world is intruded on by the real world, the fiction isn’t being served as it should be.

    A great question. Thanks for posing it.

  9. Amanda says:

    I love your articles. I am especially fond of the one on punctuation.

    While I agree with pretty much everything here, especially smiled, I find myself disagreeing with breathed being in the never-use section. When I think of breathed as a dialogue tag, I think of the sound made when someone says a word or words while exhaling. It’s not possible to say more than a couple words at a time in this manner.

    Most people breathe between words, and a ‘breathy’ voice is not the same thing. Breathy implies that one is out of breath when talking. To ‘breathe’ a word, exhale while speaking, almost in a whisper. It is a completely different sound, more like a breath of air in the form of a word, and I can’t think of any other way to describe it.

    What are your thoughts on this?

  10. Amanda, I’m glad you’ve found articles you can use.

    Choosing dialogue tags can be tough. Many, many writers use unusual tags, and you’ll find them in all sorts of books in every genre. So you would be in good company if you used an unusual tag. Yet the main purpose of tags is to identify the speaker, not to show how the dialogue is spoken.

    Writers do, of course, combine purposes with a single line of text, so you could argue for doing so with a dialogue tag, argue that you want to identify the speaker and show how the dialogue was spoken. Yet you risk turning a near invisible identifier into an example of straight telling. And if you use unusual tags again and again, you draw the reader’s attention to the tag rather than to the dialogue itself.

    You want the reader to know what the character is saying, want the character to reveal himself via his speech. Using unusual tags turns the reader’s attention to the tag and away from the dialogue itself. This becomes progressively more of a problem when unusual tags are used one after another in place of said or asked and when truly unusual tags are used. If the tag rather than the spoken words catch the reader’s attention, you’ve distracted the reader.

    There are exceptions, of course. Exceptions for a particular book or character or tag. But while breathe might seem to be okay for you, it may not be okay for your readers. They may actually be stopped by the word, wondering how a character breathes dialogue. You typically don’t want readers stopping to analyze your choices as they read.

    And while you think breathe is acceptable, another writer might think laughed is. While writers are free to try anything, there are choices that work better than others because they achieve what the writer needs them to achieve without causing other problems. A tag that distracts from the dialogue can be a problem. Is it always a problem? No. And some readers wouldn’t even notice the tag. But most of the time, you want to use the writing elements in the way that best serves the story and the reader.

    I understand your argument for using breathe, yet breathe is still a function of the body, as are words such as choked, sputtered, gurgled, and so forth. We could argue for these words to be used as tags, but doing so requires them to be what they aren’t and to do what they weren’t meant to do. And if their use even once confuses or distracts the reader from the dialogue, their use has caused a problem that could easily have been prevented.

    I’ve already gone on much too long here in the comments, but I recently laid out—with a writer—some of the issues regarding dialogue tags and I’ll paste those into a new article that more fully explains reasons not to use unusual tags.

    You’ve introduced a great topic, one I obviously can’t do justice to in a comment. Let’s explore it more in an article. I’ll add the link here when I get the article posted.

    In the meanwhile, give consideration to unusual tags. Understand what they do by looking at them as a reader would. Understand your own purposes for using a verb as a dialogue tag as well. Does the tag accomplish your purposes without causing problems? If so, use it. See how it fits into the full story. But always be aware of the consequences of word choice.

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