Dialogue tags are those few words tagged on after a sentence of dialogue to indicate who is speaking. Often, writers make mistakes with dialogue tags that end up costing them readers. As an editor, I see certain common issues cropping up around the use of dialogue tags. Below are my top five tips for perfecting your dialogue tags.

Eliminate Modifiers

Pick up any book written during the first half of the last century and you’ll see all sorts of modifiers in dialogue tags like shouted, whined, barked, stuttered, bawled, exclaimed, lamented, and my personal pet peeve: intoned.

Example:

“But, Mr. Tupper, surely there’s been a mistake,” Clara whined.

“Absolutely not. I never make mistakes!” Mr. Tupper barked.

“But, I—I was certain that the amount was ten dollars,” Clara whimpered.

“No, it was twenty dollars, and you’d better pay it up right now,” Mr. Tupper exclaimed.

While at the time, those modifiers were thought to make the writing more lively and visual, these days the trend is to use the minimalistic tag, said. Why? Because the reader’s eye passes over said with ease, rendering it almost invisible. This allows the reader to focus on the dialogue rather than on modifiers that add little to the scene. When a writer (over)uses modifiers, the writing can actually become quite comical, like in one particular book where the main characters murmured so much, they risked vibrating across the floor.

“But wait,” you say. “Isn’t using said all the time bland and boring?” No. Because you won’t be overusing said, as I’ll explain next.

Too Many Tags

Did you notice anything else about the scene above? If you thought there were too many dialogue tags, you’d be right. When a writer uses too many dialogue tags, their scenes become weighed down. Writers should pay attention to how often they tag dialogue (with ‘said’ or any other tag). It is not necessary to do so after every character speaks, and it is certainly not necessary to use only said as a way to indicate who is talking. But more on that later.

Taking the above dialogue, let’s rework it using said instead of modifiers, and we will reduce the number of dialogue tags.

“But, Mr. Tupper, surely there’s been a mistake,” Clara said.

“Absolutely not. I never make mistakes!”

“But, I—I was certain that the amount was ten dollars.”

“No, it was twenty dollars, and you’d better pay it up right now,” Mr. Tupper said.

Can you see how the dialogue is cleaner and it’s not hard to figure out who is saying what? Less is more, but watch out for my next caveat.

Too Few Tags

A writer can also err by trimming too many tags from their work, causing the reader to become confused as to who is talking. It is especially critical not to scrimp on tags when there are more than two speakers in the scene. Let’s use our example above and insert another character into the dialogue to see how too few tags can cause problems.

“But, Mr. Tupper, surely there’s been a mistake,” Clara said.

“Absolutely not. I never make mistakes!”

“But, I—I was certain that the amount was ten dollars.”

“No, it was twenty dollars, and you’d better pay it up right now,” Mr. Tupper said.

“But she only brought ten dollars with her,” said Justin.

“Well then, I guess the puppy will just have to go to someone else.”

“But I remember distinctly seeing the sign yesterday, and it said ten dollars.”

“It’s not fair, but what can you do? I suppose you should go home and raid your piggy bank. Hurry up, before someone else comes in and buys the puppy.”

In this case, with too few tags, it’s confusing who the last speaker is. It could be Mr. Tupper, or it could be Justin, instructing Clara on how she should handle the situation. When two characters take a similar tone or viewpoint, it can be tough to figure out who is saying what, so a writer should analyze their dialogue to determine if, in the absence of a tag, it is clear who is speaking and the character cannot be confused with another speaker of a similar tone or view.

Limit Descriptions

Another dialogue tag mistake is to use redundant descriptions, usually in the form of adverbs, to help the reader understand who is speaking (or how they are speaking).

“But, Mr. Tupper, surely there’s been a mistake,” Clara said anxiously.

“Absolutely not. I never make mistakes!”

“But, I—I was certain that the amount was ten dollars.”

“No, it was twenty dollars, and you’d better pay it up right now,” Mr. Tupper said.

“But she only brought ten dollars with her,” said Justin, defensively.

“Well then, I guess the puppy will just have to go to someone else.”

“But I remember distinctly seeing the sign yesterday, and it said ten dollars,” Clara said, pleadingly.

“It’s not fair, but what can you do? I suppose you should go home and raid your piggy bank. Hurry up, before someone else comes in and buys the puppy,” Justin said, compassionately.

Such descriptions are largely unnecessary as the reader can usually surmise from the words themselves, and additional character action, how the speaker is saying them. Sometimes there are cases where you want to interject the intention behind the words, as in the case of sarcasm. In most cases, it is better to do these through action tags, as we’ll see next.

Insert Action Tags

A good way to vary dialogue tags is to break them up with action tags, that is, things your characters are doing in the scene as they are talking.

“But, Mr. Tupper, surely there’s been a mistake,” Clara said.

“Absolutely not. I never make mistakes!”

“But, I—I was certain that the amount was ten dollars.”

“No, it was twenty dollars, and you’d better pay it up right now.” Mr. Tupper held out his hand and his eyes narrowed.

“But she only brought ten dollars with her,” said Justin.

“Well then, I guess the puppy will just have to go to someone else.”

“But I remember distinctly seeing the sign yesterday, and it said ten dollars.” Tears threatened to spill out of Clara’s eyes.

“It’s not fair, but what can you do? I suppose you should go home and raid your piggy bank. Hurry up, before someone else comes in and buys the puppy.” Justin pushed Clara towards the door.

When using action tags, be careful to create only action that forwards the plot, ramps up the tension, or reveals character idiosyncrasies. Random nose scratching or throat clearing is probably not something you want to use as an action tag to interest and excite readers.

If you follow the above points, you will create clear tags that flow well and forward the pace of your scenes. Refer often to this quick guide when editing your scenes with dialogue:

  • Use said, not modifiers.
  • Reduce the number of tags.
  • Watch for too few tags.
  • Limit use of descriptors.
  • Balance dialogue tags with action tags.

One final word: It is not a sin to break any of these rules. Sometimes you will want to use descriptions or modifiers but use them sparingly and only when strictly necessary, when there is no other way to get your point across. But because you are a writer, I trust you can find other ways to get your point across.