Dialogue Tags and You

Hello SEers. It’s John with you again, and today we are going to discuss dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags

Photo from Pixabay

Hold on. Before you run off or decide to take a nap give me a moment to introduce the subject.

Dialogue tags

Photo by Pixabay

We all know dialogue tags are intended to make it very clear who is doing the talking. Especially if there are more than two people involved.

Dialogue Tags

Photo by Pixabay

Many authors also use dialogue tags for emotions or other indications about how the words are delivered. There is nothing wrong with this but the chance of overdoing it to a point of complicating the action and confusing the reader is always present.

Dialogue tags

Photo by Pixabay

So, what do I want to accomplish today? My objective is simple. I want to cause a little thought about dialogue tags. “Yes, the person with the raised hand. You have a question?” “Why on Earth would you want to make us think about dialogue tags?”

A very good question and one that deserves a quick answer. Dialogue tags not done well tend to slow the reader down and, by doing so, can add an unnatural burden to the quickness of the pace of your novel. Let me give you an example. John is very angry. He enters a room and wants to confront his best friend, who he knows has taken his horse.

Dialogue tags

Photo by Pixabay

So, action.

John enters the room. “I’m very mad at you,” he screams and slams the door, which causes Ed to jump.

The tag here (he screams and slams the door, which causes Ed to jump) takes the showing action, “I’m very mad at you,” and turns it into a telling action that the reader has to now figure out. So, John is screaming, slamming a door, and Ed is jumping. All actions that have been explained to the reader by the author and hence could be labeled “telling “ actions. Let me give you a different way to express this scene so that the action flows without any telling interference at all.

So again, action.

John enters the room. “I’m very mad at you.”

“I can see that, but there is no need to raise your voice?”

John swings the door closed with a force that causes Ed to involuntarily jump. “You have my horse.”

Notice there are no tags at all in the scene above. The two characters are interacting with each other, and there is no doubt John is angry. We also have more show than tell as a result.

Dialogue tags

Elmore Leonard Wikipedia.org

Elmore Leonard, in his Ten Rules of Writing, gives two important rules around dialogue tags. They are 1. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue. 2. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

Let’s look at a couple of ways to break Elmore’s rules.

“Help me,” he pleaded

“Shut the door,” she scolded

“Are you serious?” he asked. (I always love this one. Makes you wonder what the question mark is doing there.)

“Get out,” she said threateningly.

“Put up your hands,” he ordered forcibly waving the gun.

“Dear God,” he said solemnly.

“I love you too,” he chuckled.

For whatever reason, we all want to put into dialog tags what eventually looks like stage directions when usually the dialogue alone will suffice. For practice, I create short stories using only dialogue with no tags. The trick is to bring in two or more characters and still be clear on who is talking. It does take some planning with the idea of writing each character’s dialogue with cues on who’s talking built-in. You can check out these stories which run on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Saturday on my blog. The link is below..

I hope this post gave a little food for thought and possibly cause you to pause on those tags to see if they are necessary

Dialogue Tags

Photo by Pixabay

Are we cool? Cool.


74 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags and You

  1. Tags are a great way to let people know who is speaking. I agree if done incorrectly, they can be distracting to the reader and pull her out of the story. When used correctly along with beats, they enhance a story and move it along. Good post.


  2. Confession time – I had to look up ‘beats’. I’d come across the word before but the explanations didn’t help. I’ve just found an excellent article on them and am hugely relieved to know that it’s beats I rely on most when differentiating between characters or adding a bit of ‘flavour’ to the scene. Thanks for this and for making what could have been a very dry post clear and entertaining.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This is a great post, John. I am always on the lookout for over doing dialogue tags and not using enough beats. When I read a book, they leap out at me. So many times tags are used when beats would work better. It definitely makes a difference. Great reminder to be vigilant!

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Reblogged this on The Write Stuff and commented:

    Sorry to be running a day late, but I still want to be sure none of you guys miss John Howell’s great reminder of how important it is to use dialogue tags (or not use them) correctly. Check out his post on Story Empire and you’ll see what I mean. And if you would, please consider passing it along on social media so others can enjoy it, too. Thanks, and thanks to John for reminding us that it’s critical to do this well! Great post, John! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Beats are a great way to enhance dialogue in most cases. My work focuses heavily on the interaction of others in a more than two-person scene. When identifying the speaker I use verbal tics, a definitive accent or a stammer, or have a character clearly defined because they always start their questions with things, like “So, do you … etc, etc ?” Great post, John. I’ll be looking at it again before I edit my new WIP. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

  6. I use a lot of dialogue in my stories and I know I’m guilty of too many tags. Sometimes I take advantage of the opportunity to show more about the character with an action attached to the dialogue. Thanks so much for sharing, today, John. Great tips and reminders!

    Liked by 2 people

  7. Reblogged this on Archer's Aim and commented:

    I try to avoid as many verb tags as possible and let other actions tagged to the character enhance action and anchor context. You can tell if it works while editing if you’re reading with pace or not. Good post today.


  8. I belong to a writers’ club, and when a new member joins and tries to think of new, creative verbs to use instead of “said” or even better, using an action tag, they always get a lot of comments. Not many “screams, insisted, queried” etc.slide by us. Good post.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Good stuff, John. I seem to do okay with my buddy fiction, and my characters are usually different enough that you can tell who’s speaking. Group conversations are tougher. I’ve even relied upon a verbal tic, so at least one person stands out distinctly.

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I find dialogue tags extremely tricky, and since I write a LOT of dialogue in my stories, I always end up trying to find ways to be clear who’s talking. I can’t write “he said – she said” over and over, so I often try to use the content of the dialogue to make clear what is being said by each character in a long, two-party discussion. That’s usually easier for me, because my characters often tend to use very different styles of speech, idiom, or dialect. But that’s much harder to do when there are more than two characters involved.

    Thanks for the reminders and tips, John. It’s often quite a thorny problem, for sure, and your examples are very helpful. 🙂 Just what I needed today, as I do my final revisions on my WIP before it goes to my editor. I’ll be watching those tags closely now. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  11. The dialogue tag ‘rule’ is one that I break all the time. I get so bored when all I’m doing is ‘said’, especially since my scenes usually have more than 2 characters. He said, she said, he said, she said, he said, she said, etc. Leaving out tags and names means people get confused, so I do exactly what you do in the first example to combine action with the tag. This also means the characters aren’t standing there like robots in my mind. The thing with dialogue tags confuses for a few reasons too. It’s clear that the usage is preference and both ways should be viable, but people keep going ‘here is the right way and wrong way’ as if writing is so rigid in terms of style. Just look at Elmore Leonard’s title too. It isn’t ‘Ten Suggestions to Writing’ or ‘Ten Guidelines’, but ‘Ten Rules’. I’m starting to think people like him have done more damage to the craft than helping because people take it as gospel and don’t allow for any variance. I wonder if there would be so many debates about writing if you didn’t have those stepping up to declare rules. God knows, I’m tired of the ‘show and tell’ thing where people definitely have their own limits and definitions to that.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting points. My belief is authors should create work according to their own measures. My intent here is to bring in a concept that could help move a story ahead. You certainly have written enough high quality books to hold to your own principles. Thanks, Charles.

      Liked by 2 people

      • You’re welcome. By the way, I’m not criticizing you or your intent. I get it. I just wanted to voice that writers are more like pirates. Most of our rules are more like guidelines.

        I think this is where the difficulty lies. Many new authors aren’t sure of themselves and they look for guidance. Even now, I have people asking me how to write as if I can give them a simple answer. Many grab these ‘rule’ books and follow it to the letter. They treat it as gospel, join those who do the same, and then they critique all books that don’t meet these measurements. I had a friend who was determined to write a fantasy book and she did this. She hadn’t even written one by the time I published 5, but she had read the rule books and was always telling me how my stories were wrong. As far as I know, she never wrote that book, but she knew the rules to writing and was proud to critique. So, I really do get a little ornery on the whole rule thing.

        Liked by 2 people

      • I totally understand. Until one writes a million words, telling others how to write is laughable. Even then there should be some element of STFU. Thanks again, Charles and I didn’t take your words as criticism. 😊


  12. I am obsessively passionate about dialogue tags and beats. (In fact, I think my very first SE post was on them.) If I had to guess, when I edit, tags and beats are probably the things I mark the most for my clients. Do them right and readers don’t notice them. Do them wrong and they stick out (and not in a good way). Great post, John.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. As someone who uses a lot of dialogue, I try to be aware of using too many dialogue tags. Nothing is more boring than reading a lot of “he said, she said.” The beats are so much better and do show action rather than telling. The trick is show readers who is talking when more than two people are involved. Good post, John!

    Liked by 2 people

  14. Thank you for this informative article. I myself tend to have a habit of telling when I could be showing instead. Especially with first drafts ( which I guess is expected). Maybe using showing in dialogue more, though and practicing will help.

    Liked by 1 person

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  16. Great points, John. However, we do need to be careful not to end up with ‘floating head’ syndrome, where we have no idea who’s speaking … and this happens with line after line of dialogue that has no beats or tags.
    As you’ve shown, beats are a great way to enhance dialogue when done well.
    And I agree wholeheartedly that we need to limit tags to said or asked (and keep those asked tags to a minimum). Thanks for sharing 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  17. Is that why you write those ‘no dialogue tag’ stories?!
    I suck at stage direction. Always having characters look over here there everywhere before saying their dialogue. It’s a bad habit I have to break. Maybe I need to start writing some ‘no dialogue tag’ stories…..

    Liked by 3 people

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