Dialogue Tags and When to Use Them

Written by on December 18, 2017 in editing, grammar, self-publishing, writing with 0 Comments

Dialogue Tags

What Are Dialogue Tags and When Is It Best to Use Them?

People, meaning writers, seem to mess up dialogue tags a whole lot. In an attempt to sound “writerly” or make it appear as if they are experience authors, they use ridiculous dialogue tags when they shouldn’t.

What do I mean? The answer is simple.

I’m going to provide a list of acceptable tags (a list provided to students for reference), but it’s not a list I’d recommend using. (I looked through some published books and found every one of these, and it didn’t take me too long. I had to peruse about 18 books, but eventually I found them all.)

A side note here: many English teachers advise using a some of, if not all of, the tags below. I don’t. It’s a hotly debated issue, but in my opinion, if you feel the need to use a dialogue tag other than the basic, it means you haven’t worked hard enough to clarify things. You need to rewrite.

Also, for the sake of clarification. I will refer to “name tags” and “descriptive tags” in this post.

Name tags are what they sound like—when the writer uses a character’s name to let the readers know who is speaking.

“Descriptive tags” are when the writer uses an “action” either before or after the dialogue to clarify what a character is doing.

List of acceptable dialogue tags
acknowledged admitted agreed answered argued
asked barked begged bellowed blustered
bragged complained confessed cried demanded
denied giggled hinted hissed howled
inquired interrupted laughed lied mumbled
muttered nagged pleaded promised questioned
remembered replied requested retorted roared
sang screamed screached shouted sighed
snarled sobbed threatened wailed warned
whimpered whined whispered wondered yelled

Here’s the List I’d Recommend

Acceptable tags
said
asked
yelled or hollered

Why such a difference? Because the others are not needed, and, some say, make the work appear ridiculous. Let’s look at it.

What is a Dialogue Tag?

What is a dialogue tag for? What purpose does it serve?

A dialogue tag is typically used to let the readers know who is speaking, and what mood they’re in. It’s tough work, and because of that, many writers rely on excessive dialogue tags (usually stemming from laziness), hoping that the tags will do the work for them.

An example can be seen in this, taken from a mystery book I recently read.

“Get out of my house!” Susan roared emphatically.

Name tag—There is a lot wrong with that sentence, starting with the fact that we didn’t need to know it was Susan who was speaking. From the context of the scene (not shown here), we knew it was Susan who was speaking.

Punctuation—Though exclamation points are not my favorites, and should be used sparsely, it would have been fine in that sentence; however, if the author kept the exclamation point, they didn’t need the rest.

“Get out of my house!” would have been sufficient, and, in fact, would have had more impact in my opinion. I already said we didn’t need to know Susan was speaking, and the use of the exclamation point would have sufficed as a tool to replace the roared, and, emphatically.

Readers don’t need to be told—with tags—that a character laughed, cried, shuddered, sobbed, felt fear, or was ashamed, or experienced any other emotion. They should know by the dialogue itself, or the actions of the characters while they speak.

Clarification

What do I mean?
Suppose you’re reading a book where the husband and wife are arguing, and you come to a scene where one of them turns to the other and says,

“Grow up,” she said, then slammed the door as she walked out.

By the “grow up” comment, we know she is accusing him of acting infantile. We know it’s her speaking by the use of “she,” and we know she’s pissed by the way she slammed the door, and then walked out.

We could have said, “Grow up,” Susan said, furiously.

But we didn’t need to use her name again, and if we use furiously, the reader is left to imagine what furiously is. In the first example, we’re providing them with the perfect example–the example we want of her slamming the door. It’s an image the reader can imagine and most likely empathize with. It’s one they’ve probably experienced. And nothing could be better than that. Give the readers examples that they can relate to.

Allow Readers to Experience Emotions

If I want to evoke an emotion—say fear or panic—I put the reader in a situation like a mother who loses her child at the beach or a park or a carnival. Picture below shows panic of a lost child.

dialogue tage
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Readers can then picture that woman looking around, eyes bulging, panicking, screaming the child’s name, heart racing, throat tightening. They can empathize with this because they have either experienced it themselves, or they know someone who has, or they’ve at least seen that kind of situation in a TV show or a movie.

On the lighter side of things. If you want a writing rule to follow. I know you’ve all heard the rule of “show, don’t tell.” This is no different.

When you use dialogue tags (especially adverbial ones), you are telling the readers how you want them to feel. It’s not much different than having a stagehand holding up signs during the performance of a play that have written on them in big, bold letters:

It’s time to cry.

Yes, it’s that bad.

You don’t need to tell the readers that your character left the room slowly (or walked slowly down the hall), instead say, she tiptoed out of the bedroom, or she crept down the hall, or she climbed the stairs, one at-a-time, careful not to make them creak.

descriptive dialogue tags
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I’m willing to bet that at one point in their lives, every reader, or most of them, has tried going up a set of stairs without them making a sound. This is an action they can imagine, they can visualize. It will have a far greater impact on them then ‘went up the stairs slowly’. The same applies to tiptoeing and ‘walked down the hall slowly.’

I’m not crazy about dialogue tags in any sense, but I try to avoid adverbs like the plague. (How’s that for a cliché?)

How to Avoid Adverbial Dialogue Tags

I do my best to let the words speak for themselves. Picture yourself blind, and you’re sitting in a room with a group of people. You should be able to tell who’s talking by things other than sight. The cadence (easily applied by emphasizing when writing), manner of speaking (Does your character speak in long sentences, stutter, use incomplete sentences?), vocabulary (simple or complex), use of contractions—or not, and use and frequency of offensive language.

All of these and more, make up a character’s “voice personality” and just like you could tell if it is your brother or someone else in the room next to you, your readers should be able to do the same with each of your characters—your main ones anyway. And just to mention—a character’s “voice” is not the same as the author’s voice. The author’s voice is shown mostly in the prose.

One Last Look at Dialogue Tags

Let’s examine that table of tags and look at them one-by -one to see which ones are useful.

Can you “smile” a saying
“grin” a response
“giggle” or “bark” a reply?

Instead of “saying” or “telling” a character interrupted someone, show it by using an em dash. Or make use of the ellipse to indicate missing words or a pause in thought.

Don’t tell your readers that someone mumbled, have the other character ask what they said, and then clarify by saying “you were mumbling.”

Examples are as follow:

Ted lowered his head as he turned his back to his mother. “I’m going to the mall.”

“What did you say, young man? Speak clearly, and don’t try to hide what you’re doing. Mumble again when I ask a question, and you’ll go to your room. Understand? Was that clear enough?”

If I were a reader, I’d understand what happened there, and it would be more interesting than saying “he mumbled”. I’ve had teenagers. I can relate.

Using replied or answered as a tag is ridiculous in my opinion. If the character is addressing the other person, then by definition they are replying or answering. We are aware of that as soon as they start talking so there is no need to tell us that the character replied or answered.

Using words like bragged or demanded are also redundancies. If you have a desire to say someone braggedthen they obviously must have said something positive about the individual, so we can infer that they were bragging. The same thing with demanded. The dialogue will (or should) make it obvious.

Let the Dialogue Speak for Itself

The table listed above, and unfortunately, too many books, are loaded with examples of tags that are not needed. Try to remember that you almost never need a dialogue tag to explain your dialogue. Let the dialogue speak for itself.

Think about it another way. You don’t have a third party following you around explaining your dialogue and actions, do you? I hope not, because it would be ridiculous. Imagine the scene—you’re at the table and holler across the kitchen to your wife. “What the hell’s for dinner?” Then a third party shouts, “he said impatiently, and with anger.”

Trust me, your wife would know by your tone and your words, that you were impatient and angry, and you’d be fortunate if she didn’t hit you with a frying pan. But the point is, she didn’t need a third party to interpret for her.

So the next time one of your characters are tempted to laugh, or grin, or smile an answer—think again, and maybe just have them say it.

For more blogs like this, consider this post.

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Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. See the complete list here.       He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends.

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About the Author

About the Author: Giacomo Giammatteo is the author of gritty crime dramas about murder, mystery, and family. And he also writes non-fiction books including the No Mistakes Careers series as well as books about grammar and publishing. He lives in Texas where he and his wife have an animal sanctuary with 45 loving “friends. .

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