Dialogue Tags

Dialogue is what a character says in your story.

A dialogue tag is a short phrase that goes along with a line of dialogue that lets the reader know which character is speaking.

For example:

“Let’s go to a movie,” said Jennifer.

DIALOGUE: “Let’s go to a movie,”

DIALOGUE TAG: said Jennifer.

Easy enough, right?

So let’s pretend you’re writing a conversation between two wampas.


“You’re missing an arm,” said Fluffy.

“Some guy chopped it with a lightsaber,” said Snowball.

“I bet you provoked him,” said Fluffy.

“No, I didn’t,” said Snowball.

“It’s no secret you’ve been eating people and taun-tauns,” said Fluffy.

“You lie!” said Snowball.

This is tedious to read. One might think it’s because there isn’t variance in the dialogue tags. We get the word “said” too much in too short a time.

Let’s try again, using dialogue tag variety:

“You’re missing an arm,” exclaimed Fluffy.

“Some guy chopped it with a lightsaber,” roared Snowball.

“I bet you provoked him,” guffawed Fluffy, slyly.

“No, I didn’t,” replied Snowball.

“It’s no secret you’ve been eating people and taun-tauns,” remarked Fluffy.

“You lie!” screeched Snowball.

It’s still tedious to read, and now the dialogue tags call attention to themselves, taking the reader out of the story.

If using “said” too much seems tedious, but using different dialogue tags is distracting, what should you do?

The answer is simple.

Never write dialogue again.

Like, ever.



Just kidding.

Let’s try again.

“You’re missing an arm,” said Fluffy.

Snowball leaned his wound against the ice wall, easing the pain to a numb throb. “Some guy chopped it with a lightsaber.”

Fluffy shook her head. “I bet you provoked him.”

“No, I didn’t,” said Snowball.

Fluffy took a step closer, snow crunching beneath her claws. “It’s no secret you’ve been eating people and taun-tauns.”

“You lie!” Snowball’s voice echoed through the cave.

Okay. This reads a bit smoother.

We have the same six lines of dialogue, but how many times were dialogue tags used?

Two times.

Said was used twice. I used it because it’s the least distracting dialogue tag.

But what about the other four lines of dialogue? How do we know who is speaking?

For three of them, I assigned a character action to the dialogue. If a character does something, and then in the same paragraph there is a line of dialogue, readers will assume it’s the same character speaking, and so no dialogue tag is needed.

This accomplishes quite a bit. We get rid of having to use said so often that it becomes tedious.

This also gives us a chance to vary the length of the six paragraphs. Sometimes a shorter action is used, such as Fluffy shaking her head, and sometimes a longer action is used, such as Snowball leaning his wound against the ice wall to ease the pain.

It’s the sentence and paragraph length variance that helps this version read smoother.

Also, by assigning character action to lines of dialogue, it helps a reader to better “see” the characters as they are having the conversation.

Assigning character action to dialogue also gives the writer opportunities to add sensory details, such as the feel of ice on a wound, or the sound of crunching snow. Little details like this help to ground the reader into your scene.

With all the benefits of assigning character action to dialogue, should we never use dialogue tags?

I wouldn’t go that far.

Assigning character action to every line of dialogue would get tedious as well. The key is variety. This is why I sprinkled a couple of saids into the above conversation.

For the sixth line of dialogue, I don’t use a tag or a character action to identify the speaker. Instead I describe how the voice sounds, in this case an echo, while stating the owner of the voice. So we get speaker identification and a sensory detail (the sound of the voice echoing) in one swoop.

That’s it for now!

Does anyone have other tips for writing dialogue? Please let us know!

This is Toydust, over and out!

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