In creative writing, dialogue is a powerful tool for conveying a character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions. However, to make dialogue effective in a story, it’s important to use dialogue tags properly.
Dialogue tags, also known as speech tags, are used to attribute spoken words to a specific character in a dialogue. They can significantly impact the tone and pacing of dialogue in a story.
In this article, you’ll learn what dialogue tags are and why they matter. You’ll also learn how to use dialogue tags properly in dialogue writing.
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What Is A Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is a phrase or clause that indicates who is speaking in a conversation. These tags often follow or precede a dialogue and identify the speaker to the reader.
For example, in the sentence:
“I’m so excited to be here,” she said.
The dialogue tag is “she said.” This tag clarifies that “she” is the one speaking. This helps to maintain clarity in the conversation.
Dialogue tags can take many forms and can include words such as “said,” “replied,” “exclaimed,” “whispered,” and more. These tags can also include adverbs, such as “she said softly” or “he exclaimed loudly,” which can provide additional context about the speaker’s tone or mood.
However, you should use dialogue tags cautiously and avoid overusing them, as this can disrupt the flow of the conversation and distract the reader.
What Is The Purpose Of A Dialogue Tag?
There are several purposes for which writers use the dialogue tag. They include:
- To identify the character speaking: The primary purpose of a dialogue tag is to attribute spoken words to a specific character in a dialogue. This helps readers to follow the flow of the dialogue and understand who is speaking.
- To inform about the speaker’s tone or mood. A character who speaks quietly might be attributed with a dialogue tag such as “she whispered.” While another who is angry or frustrated might be attributed with a tag such as “he shouted.”
- To identify characters’ relationships: Dialogue tags convey information about the characters and their relationships. For example, the tag “he said affectionately” conveys much more than just who is speaking.
- To create a sense of pacing: Dialogue tags help to maintain a sense of pacing by adding pauses between lines of conversation.
- To provide context: Dialogue tags can also provide background information about a scene or situation. For example, a tag such as “he said skeptically” or “she replied thoughtfully” can help to provide information about the characters’ feelings and reactions.
- To identify a character’s personality or speech patterns. For example, if a character often speaks humorously, then the dialogue tag “he quipped” could be used.
Dialogue tags can help to bring the characters to life and make the dialogue more dynamic and engaging for the reader.
Examples of Dialogue Tags
Here are some examples of dialogue tags that can be used to attribute spoken words to a specific character:
How to Use Dialogue Tags in Story Writing
Here are some tips on how to use dialogue tags effectively in your writing:
1. Use “said” as your default tag
The tag “said” is a neutral dialogue tag often used in writing. It’s important to use it sparingly to not distract from the dialogue itself.
“Where were you?” said John.
“I was at the store,” replied Mary.
In this example, “said” serves as a simple, unobtrusive tag that doesn’t distract from the dialogue. While you can use other descriptive dialogue tags to convey the tone and mood of the conversation, they should only be used sparingly compared to the “said” dialogue tag.
2. Use descriptive tags sparingly
Descriptive tags like “whispered,” “shouted,” or “muttered” can add more detail to your dialogue but should be used sparingly to avoid overwhelming the reader.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
In this example, the tag “whispered” provides insight into the character’s mood, seeing as her voice trembled. However, overusing such descriptive tags can detract from the story. Instead, consider using action beats to convey emotions and actions.
3. Use action beats to convey tone
Action beats are physical actions or movements that accompany dialogue. Using them can effectively convey tone and mood without relying on dialogue tags.
In the previous example, instead of using the descriptive tag “whispered,” you can use an action beat to convey the character’s emotions and actions.
So, instead of: “I can’t believe this is happening,” she whispered, her voice trembling.
“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said, her voice trembling as she clutched her hands together nervously.
The action beat (“clutched her hands together nervously”) provides insight into the character’s emotions and actions without relying on a descriptive dialogue tag like “whispered.”
This approach can create a more immersive experience for the reader and prevent overuse of descriptive tags.
4. Use action tags
Action tags can indicate who is speaking and what they are doing simultaneously, adding depth to your dialogue and helping readers visualize the scene.
John smiled and said, “I had a great time today.”
Mary laughed and replied, “Me too!”
These tags provide additional information about the characters’ actions while they speak, creating a more immersive experience for the reader.
5. Vary your tags
Repetitive dialogue tags can become tedious to read. So, you should try to vary your dialogue tags to avoid repetition. Instead of using “said” or “asked” repeatedly, try using synonyms like “inquired,” “answered,” or “replied,” or even action beats.
6. use Dialogue tags Only when necessary
Avoid using dialogue tags for every line of dialogue, as this can make your writing feel cluttered and choppy. If it’s clear who is speaking, or if the dialogue is between two people, you can omit the tags altogether.
“Are you going to the party tonight?” John asked.
“I’m not sure,” Mary replied. “I have a lot of work to do.”
In this example, because the conversation is between only two people, a third “dialogue” tag after “I have a lot of work to do” could be omitted without confusing the reader.
7. Use punctuation correctly
Dialogue tags are punctuated with a comma, question mark, or exclamation mark before the closing quotation marks.
- “I’m here,” she said.
- “Are you coming?” she asked.
- “I can’t believe it!” he exclaimed.
If the dialogue tag comes before the quoted speech, it is followed by a comma, and the first word of the quoted speech is capitalized.
She said, “I’m going to the store.”
If the dialogue tag interrupts the quoted speech, the first part of the quoted speech is followed by a comma, and the dialogue tag is separated from the rest of the quoted speech by commas.
“I’m going to the store,” she said, “to buy some milk.”
8. Read your dialogue out loud
One of the best ways to determine if your dialogue tags are effective is to read your dialogue out loud. If the dialogue flows smoothly and the tags don’t interrupt the rhythm of the conversation, then you’ve used them effectively. This exercise can help you identify any awkward or unnecessary tags that need to be revised or removed.
Video Recommendation: How To Use Dialogue Tags
Here’s a video recommendation that explains what a dialogue tag is:
FAQs On How To Use Dialogue Tags
What Is A Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is a word or phrase used to indicate who is speaking in a conversation or dialogue. It usually comes after a character’s dialogue and can include verbs such as “said,” “asked,” “replied,” “shouted,” and so on.
Why Are Dialogue Tags Used?
Dialogue tags make it clear to the reader who is speaking in a conversation. They can also convey important information about how the character is speaking (such as their tone of voice or mood).
Is It Always Necessary To Use A Dialogue Tag?
It is not always necessary to use a dialogue tag. In some cases, it may be clear from the context who is speaking, or the dialogue may be structured so that it is unnecessary to include a tag. However, it is generally a good idea to use a dialogue tag when there is a possibility of confusion or ambiguity.
What Are Some Common Mistakes To Avoid When Using Dialogue Tags?
One common mistake is overusing dialogue tags or using them in a way that is distracting or unnecessary. Another mistake is using dialogue tags that are too repetitive or predictable, such as always using “said” or using overly complex or flowery language.
Can You Use A Dialogue Tag With A Question?
Yes, you can use a dialogue tag with a question. For example: “Do you want to go to the movies tonight?” Jane asked.
Final Notes On How To Use Dialogue Tags
A dialogue tag is an essential component of writing dialogue that helps readers identify who is speaking in a conversation. Dialogue tags can take various forms, from simple phrases like “he said” or “she asked” to more complex constructions that include adverbs or action tags.
Using dialogue tags effectively is crucial for creating clear and engaging dialogue that moves the story forward and keeps readers invested in the characters and their conversations. By understanding how to use dialogue tags, writers can elevate their writing and create compelling dialogue in their stories.