Welcome to the Bookshelf Detective, a site packed with tricks and tips for readers and writers of children's literature. Thank you for visiting!
Kim Tomsic

Sunday, December 10, 2023

7 Quick and Easy Tips for Writing Dialogue Tags

Let's chat about dialogue tags - when to use them, where to place them, and how to format. Below you'll find five best-practice tips to look like a professional.


          Dialogue is what your characters say. 

A dialogue tag is how you designate who is saying what (e.g., she says or Mom says). Use a dialogue tag whenever you need to make it clear who is speaking. If the reader knows who is speaking, then no tag is needed. For example, when only two characters are speaking, you won’t need to tag every single line. When your character has a distinct voice or distinct phraseology, you probably don't need to tag. When your character speaks while doing an action, you don't need to tag. More on that below.   



Ideally, you will tag with he said, she said, they said, or Proper Noun said rather than placing the said before the pronoun or proper noun. This isn’t a rule. Sometimes one or two variations can feel fresh and welcome, but when you write “said Kim” rather than “Kim said” it takes on the old Dick-and-Jane book sound.

Tip Two
CHOOSE SAID (instead of exclaimed, declared, etc.)

Use “said” as an invisible word. You can also use “asked” here and there or “answered”. But it becomes too heavy handed when an author uses back-to-back lavish or effusive tags like, “Wow!” she exclaimed (or any of the like phrases). That doesn’t mean there’s not space for one or two specialized tags, just don’t use them like confetti.

Why “SAID” for the win: Using “said” disappears nicely and keeps the dialogue flowing, it puts the characters center stage, and it keeps the author’s presence from intruding on the page (which messes with the suspension of disbelief).  



“Hello!” she says. “Are you reading this?”

“Yes,” you answer.

"Can you believe this post?" she says.

Notice that after the dialogue, the tag of he says or she says or they say (all pronouns) are not capitalized even when it follows an exclamation point or a question mark. If you’re using a tag, the sentence is over after the tag, and it ends in a period. If the character is asking a question, the question mark goes within the quotes, but the period comes after the tag, e.g.,

“How did this happen?” Dad asks.


“How did this happen?” my dad asks.


“How did this happen?” she said.


Obviously, when dialogue is followed by a proper noun, the proper noun will be capitalized as proper nouns always are, e.g.,  

“Hello,” Kim says.

Tip Four: My Mom vs. mom

Notice that when you refer to my mom, it is not a proper noun, but when you refer to Mom as a name (I asked Mom vs. I asked my mom), then it is a proper noun and capitalized. For example, all work:

“Dinner time!” Mom said. “We’re having fried rattlesnake.”

“Dinner time!” my mom said. “We’re having fried rattlesnake.”

“Dinner time,” my mom said. “We’re having friend rattlesnake.”


Tip Five: PLACEMENT (tags at beginning, middle, or end)

You should decide if you need a tag or not. If you do, choose the best tag placement (beginning, middle, or end) for your story and for the moment. Read your piece as a whole to make this decision.

Tag Placement Examples Round One:


If you’d like the tag before the dialogue it will look like so:

My mom said, “Dinner time! We’re having fried rattlesnake.”


Mom said, “Dinner time! We’re having fried rattlesnake.”


“Dinner time!” Mom said. “We’re having fried rattlesnake.”

“Dinner time!” my mom said. “We’re having fried rattlesnake.”


“Dinner time! We’re having fried rattlesnake,” my mom said.

“Dinner time! We’re having fried rattlesnake,” Mom said.

Tag Placement Examples Round Two:


If you’d like the tag before the dialogue it will look like so:

She said, “You know we only wear vegan leather, right? I thought John told you.”


“You know we only wear vegan leather, right?” she said. “I thought John told you.”


“You know we only wear vegan leather, right? I thought John told you,” she said.



If you are not using a question mark or an exclamation mark after the dialogue, BUT you are going to add a dialogue tag, then you will end the dialogue with a comma ,followed by quotes, followed by the dialogue tag, followed by a period. For example:

“Wow! It’s a gorgeous day,” she said.

“Wow!” she said. “It’s a gorgeous day.”

“How did you come to land on a star?” she asked.

“Harshita landed on a star,” she said.

“Amazing! You landed on a star,” she said.  

“You did it,” she said. “You landed on a star!”

Tip Seven: 
Replace a dialogue tag with an action:

When you put your character in action, you can simply end their dialogue with a period, and then write their action on the same line to indicate which character is talking. For example,


“It’s cold outside.” Mom wrapped a soft scarf around Anson’s neck. “Would you like mittens, too?”


“I didn’t eat the cookies.” Amita brushed crumbs from the corner of her mouth. “I swear.”


Notice in the above examples that you don’t need to say who said the dialogue lines. We know it is Mom in the first example and Amita in the second example, because they are the ones doing an action.


Let’s put it all together. Here’s a peek at what I turned in with my manuscript GUITAR GENIUS.



In a three-story schoolhouse near the Fox River in Waukesha, Wisconsin, children scrambled into the music room.


Tambourines shimmied, drums boomed, and bells clanged. Little Lester loved it all—the punchy pluck of banjo chords, the bright twinkle of piano keys, and the rise and fall of notes.

Lester couldn’t read the music sheets. Those tracks of squiggly lines and black dots didn’t make sense. But it didn’t matter. The fun part was all the sounds he could make.


At his after-school piano lesson, his teacher sighed and pinned a note to his shirt.

He skipped all the way home.

“What does it say?” he asked, grinning from freckle to freckle.

“Well,” Lester’s mother said gently. “It says you’ll never be musical.”

Lester’s shoulders sank. His eyes stung.

“Don’t listen to her.” His mother tore the paper into tiny pieces. “You are going to be great.”


“You can do anything you put your mind to.”

Lester thought about that.


He did a lot of thinking. One day while he was stuffing newspapers for his paper route, his buddy, Harry, showed up wrapping wire around an empty oatmeal can.

“What are you doing, Harry?”

“I’m building a crystal radio set.”

Well, that was interesting. So Lester gathered bits and parts [art: aluminum foil, telephone receiver] and built his own crystal kit. Then he wired it right to the bedsprings in his mattress for an antenna . . .

Out from his home-built radio floated the warm drawl of guitar strings. Wowza!



Happy writing



No comments:

Blog Archive