Dialogue Tags

What are dialogue tags? They are the little he saids, she saids of the literary world. While many of us learned in school to vary our dialogue tags so we don’t just use ‘said’ all the time, the fact is, if you can’t substitute the tag you have now with ‘said’ and still understand the meaning of what is being spoken, you may want to go back and rewrite your dialogue.

Let’s take a look at a sample:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” demanded Lucy. “I have to be there!”
“Well, young lady,” her mother explained, “you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom…” Lucy whined. “All my friends will be there!”

Using dialogue tags like this explains what should have been explained in your dialogue. If you did get the meaning across in your dialogue, you shouldn’t have to explain it again by using tags. In fact, sometimes you don’t need tags at all.

When you have a dialogue between two people, once you’ve established who is speaking, you can often dispense with the attributions altogether, breaking up the dialogue with beats. Few people just sit there, completely still, while speaking. They may take a sip of coffee or scratch their neck. They may stand up abruptly to add power to what they are saying. Adding physical action to your dialogue makes it more realistic and believable; much more believable than spelling out your meanings through the dialogue tags.

Let’s take another look at that bit of dialogue:

“What do you mean, I can’t go?” Lucy said. “I have to be there!”
Her mother folded another towel. “Well, young lady, you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”
“But Mom… all my friends will be there!”

You still get all the meaning, don’t you? Remember this when you write your dialogue. It will improve your writing.

Edited according to our helpful comment! Just proves that every writer needs an objective editor!

2 thoughts on “Dialogue Tags”

  1. Great post! Trimming extraneous dialogue tags is one of the best ways to clean up dialogue. :)

    A note about this line:

    “Well, young lady,” her mother folded another towel, “you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”

    I believe this usage of beats (using an action to make it clear who’s speaking, rather than a dialogue tag) isn’t quite correct. An edit:

    Her mother folded another towel. “Well, young lady, you didn’t clean your room like you said you would. You know the consequences.”

    As far as I know, you can only split dialogue for a dialogue tag. (“Well,” she said, “you didn’t clean your room…”)

    This may be personal preference, but I believe Lucy should also “ask” if she can’t go rather than “say.” “Asked” is the other so-called invisible dialogue tag and more appropriate for questions.

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