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Kim Tomsic

Friday, December 29, 2023

3 Quick Tips on How to Write Dialogue Tags


"Let's chat about dialogue tags," she said.

"Okay!" I said. "I'm game."

I know, I know. Riveting conversation above.🤣

What is a dialogue tag? It's what you put after you close the quotes and designate the speaker.

Some tags you might have written or seen include:

...," he said.

...," she whispered.

...," they bellowed.

...," Kaia exclaimed.

...," Sharma whimpered.

And the list goes on. 

Firstly, no! Please try to stick with "said" and use the other examples sparingly. More on why below.

Secondly, formatting: Notice that there is a comma inside the quotation marks. The sentence ends after the tag. For example, "We are talking about dialogue tags," they said. If the statement ended in an exclamation point or a question mark, it would replace the comma. For example, "What are you talking about?" she asked. But look - "she" remains lower case. 

Thirdly, why dedicate a blog post to dialogue tags? 

There tends to be a lot of opinions on this topic. But remember, opinions are not rules. Here are my thoughts (and I'm not alone on this, so please feel the peer pressure😼): Using the tag "said" keeps the characters talking and the author out of the scene. What does that mean? It means when tags are used to add pomp and flourish to the prose, they demand attention and the dialogue takes second place to the tags. This happens when an author feels unsure that their words are doing the work, so they plant tags to carry the weight. 

Not always. Never always. But too many flourishy tags in a row can stifle flow. Uh-oh, there goes the suspension of disbelief. 

Links to an external site.

Style books and editors often prefer he said or she said or they said  or Stephen King said or Kim said, because such a tag is invisible. It's invisible because the reader can rush past the word "said" and stick with the moment and characters. With a rhythm of simple "saids", the tags fall away and the story remains front and center. 

On the other hand, if an author injects themselves on the page and shows off with a lot of effusive tags, the rhythm is interrupted, the reading slows down, and the reader is reminded that there is a clever author in the background. They are reminded that they are reading. Alas, they are robbed of the experience of being immersed in the magic and the moment with the characters.  

Brian Shawver in his book,  The Language of Fiction: A Writer’s Style Book, says, “Part of writing smoothly about a character involves moving the reader from the external events to the interior world of the character with elegance.”

This is not to say you'll never add extra flare to a tag. Simply consider choosing other tags sparingly as a way to allow the dialogue the chance to flow smoothly. Make strong word choices and verb choices so your tags don't need the bonus lift. 

Furthermore, sometimes you can leave a tag out altogether. Trust your readers. If they know who is talking, don't tag. For example, if there are only two characters on scene, there will be many sentences where the tag is unneeded.

Here's a blog from Mastercraft covering Five Tips for Writing Dialogue Tags

 If you’d like to read more on this topic, Master Class has an interesting article Links to an external site.. Mary Kole has an even better article on dialogue tags on the KidLit.com blogsite called How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags 

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