Write well. Write often. Edit wisely.
Dialogue tags in fiction—she 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.
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.
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.
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.
If you insist on using creative dialogue tags, at least don’t be redundant.
**For a refresher on the rules for punctuating dialogue, see Punctuation in Dialogue.**
Best dialogue tags:
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.