What is a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is used to identify a speaker in a written conversation. It is the “he said” or “she said” that follows the spoken words.
Let’s examine a correct dialogue tag. Here a simple formula: Open quotation mark + spoken words + comma + close quotation marks + speaker + verb for said + period.
Example: “This is how you write a dialogue tag,” Ramona said.
For a longer sentence, the dialogue tag may be inserted in the middle, to ID the speaker while she is still speaking. The formula begins the same way. After the verb for said comes another comma + open quotation mark + spoken words + period/exclamation point/question mark + close quotation mark.
Example: “This is one way, ” Ramona said, “but this is not the only way.”
If the spoken words are a question or a shout, the comma is replaced…
…by a question mark: “Is this how you do it?” Ramona asked.
…or an exclamation point: “Yes, it is!” Ramona cried.
Sounds straightforward, right? Yet, errors in dialogue tags are common and one of the easiest ways a writer can ruin her manuscript’s clean copy.
How do you mess up a dialogue tag? Let us count the ways:
1. Instead of a said verb, replace with an action verb. What this does is turn the dialogue into a standalone sentence. That requires it be treated as a standalone sentence, not as a part of a sentence. This is not incorrect. The mess up happens (often!) when the writer misuses the punctuation before the dialogue tag–keeps the comma.
Incorrect: “Writers get this wrong so often,” Ramona shook her head. “It’s a shame because it hurts credibility.”
Correct:: “Writers get this wrong so often.” Ramona shook her head. “It’s a shame because it hurts credibility.”
If what follows the dialogue is not a dialogue tag but instead shows an action by the speaker, the spoken words must end in a period, exclamation point, or question mark–punctuation that ends the sentence.
2. Use a verb that’s not a speaking verb.
Incorrect: “Writers try to make me speak without using my mouth,” Ramona shrugged. “It happens all the time.”
Correct: “Writers try to make me speak without using my mouth.” Ramona shrugged. “It happens all the time.”
Shrugged is not a way of speaking. Nor is sighed, glared, laughed, chuckled, yawned, nodded, pointed, hit, conspired. Speaking verbs are said asked, yelled, shouted, stated, blurted, demanded, guessed, cried, inquired.
Said is by far the most popular speaking verb. It requires little to no processing by the reader. It performs the very simple but important task of helping to identify the speaker. You can’t go wrong with said.
You can go wrong if you try to get too fancy and use anything but said. When you start with stated and moved into shared, confided, noted, offered, explained, ejaculated…if you get to ejaculated, you’ve gone too far. Go back to said.
3. Overwriting by overloading with unnecessary adverbs.
An occasional adverb is acceptable~ “I can’t believe you told him my weight,” Louise said angrily.
But the adverb must match the dialogue ~“I can’t believe you told him my weight,” Louise said proudly.~ Huh?
Examples of unnecessary adverbs:
~ “Cut it out!” Louise shouted loudly. – How else can you shout, but loudly?
~ “Stop it!” Louise whispered softly. – Same as above. Can you whisper any way but softly?
Correct use of grammar doesn’t catch an editor’s eye. Grammar is meant to be blind. When it’s misused, the editor and reader will notice. A wrongly placed comma or annoying adverb is not the kind of notice you’re looking for when you have two characters conversing.
4 thoughts on “How To Write a Dialogue Tag”
“I’m sharing this with everyone who follows me on Twitter,” Marc replied.
“That’s great, Marc!” Ramona exclaimed. “Thank you!”
Dang! Marc beat me to the punch!
Question for you Ramona – I read more & more dialogue that’s back to back to back, without any dialogue tags at all. I can see where there’s a rhythm in the work, but is there any other rule of thumb for leaving tags off?
Pamela, those are invisible dialogue tags–they’re not on the page but they’re understood. I think invisibles work best with quick flowing conversations, i.e. arguments, or flirting, or humorous bantering. It’s especially effective when it’s one line of dialogue after another, as opposed to paragraphs.
It can get tricky to keep the speakers straight. Here are a few ways to cure that:
~Use invisible dialogue tags only with two speakers. More than two and it’s too hard to keep track of who said what.
~Have a character say the other character’s name. That’s a bit of a cheat, but it alerts the reader to the speaker without a proper tag.
~Inject a dialogue tag every 5 lines or so. That’s an arbitrary number. You can set your own rule but 5 lines feels natural to me.
~Have a character do something physical before he/she speaks.
Hope that helps!