Dialogue tags are the words used after a character has spoken, such as “he said,” and “she whispered.”
So, in the sentence: “I’d love to go out to dinner with you,” Jane said, ‘Jane said’ is the dialogue tag.
The most popular tag by far, and with good reason, is ‘said‘. It’s okay to use it over and over. Despite what you might think, it doesn’t get repetitious for the reader as the word ‘said’ is invisible in effect.
Dialogue tags are very important as they’re used to show which character is speaking at any given time. We’re asking our poor reader to do a lot of work. She has to keep in mind many different pieces of information, and the tags help her keep track of who’s speaking.
Check out the following very simple example:
“I think we should go this way,” said Jane.
“You’re right,” said Mark.
“The other way might be better,” said Steve.
“No, I think Jane’s right,” said Martha.
(Note that the text read said Jane (or whoever) rather than Jane said. You can use either, depending on what sounds right and works for you. But if you’re using pronouns, always put them first, e.g. he said rather than said he.)
Now, I’d be the first to admit that the example given is a bit flat – you’d never do that in real life. It’s just to illustrate a point.
Which leads me on nicely to the trick of using action to vary the tags.
“I think we should go this way,” Jane said, pointing.
Mark nodded. “You’re right.”
“The other way might be better,” Steve said, determination etched on his face.
“No, I think Jane’s right,” Martha said.
Do you see how that brought the scene to life a little? It was much easier to visualise what was going on – even though we still have very little information.
You might also note that we lost the dialogue tag for Mark entirely, but yet it’s still perfectly clear that it’s he who is speaking.
For long sentences, get your tag in early so that readers know immediately who’s speaking. So:
“I wonder,” said Jane, “if we could try building a raft out of those trees.”
“I wonder if we could try building a raft out of those trees,” said Jane.
The invisible dialogue tag
Often, particularly if there are only two people speaking in the scene, you can leave out many – if not most – tags, and the reader will be able to figure out who’s speaking anyway. It’s as if the tag is there, but invisible. It’s understood.
For example (say it’s already been made clear that Clara and Philip are in the scene):
“Oh you always do that!” said Clara.
“I do not!”
“You do. Every single time.”
“I don’t, and I resent you saying that.”
So, even though there’s only one tag for four sentences, we’re perfectly able to tell who’s speaking each time. For long pieces of dialogue, see if you can’t minimise the number of dialogue tags.
The best way to do this is to first of all try to have it that there are only two characters in the story. Only do this if it suits the story. Story is king, and all has to serve that.
But if you can get it down to two characters, do. That will, as explained above, already help the reader keep track even if you only have a tag every so often.
The other trick is to use description instead of tags. Not only does this cut down on the number of tags, but it helps the reader visualise what’s going on. For example:
Clara shook her hair back in frustration. “I’m serious, Philip. I can’t bear it when you see her.”
Philip raised his eyes to heaven, looking for patience perhaps. “There’s nothing to worry about, Clara. I’m totally over her. I’m with you now, after all.”
Clara shook her head. “That seems too easy.”
Philip sighed and strode over to her. He put his hands on her shoulders. “You are the only woman for me, I swear.”
You’ll note also that each of the characters used the other’s name. That’s a good trick too, as long as it’s totally natural – only do it where people would genuinely use the other person’s name.
Alternatives to ‘said’ as a dialogue tag
Although ‘said’ is the most common tag, you can use others. For example, use asked if there’s a question. And sometimes it’s worthwhile to use other tags. In the above example I could have done this:
“Oh you always do that!” said Clara.
“I do not!”
“Well, I might have done it once or twice,” Philip conceded.
You can use tags like whispered, shouted, agreed, and yelled as long as they’re used in moderation.
However, tags such as: ejaculated, bragged, declared and exclaimed should never be used. They’re just too purple and they’re falling into the trap of telling-not-showing.
Finally, absolutely never use tags like grinned, laughed or smiled. I’ve been guilty of this in the past, I have to say, until the writer Sarah Webb, pointed out to me that you cannot speak and smile at the same time, or speak and laugh at the same time.
The last thing to be careful of when you’re using dialogue tags is adverbs. As writers we have to be careful of overusing adverbs , and adverbs with dialogue tags are no exception.
So, try to minimise your use of such tags as:
- … he said softly
- … he shouted angrily
- … she said wistfully.
Try instead to show the character speaking softly, or shouting angrily, or speaking wistfully by using description. One last suggestion would be to study printed books for their use of dialogue tags.