Monday, January 9, 2012

Writing Tips--Dialog Tags

If you’re writing fiction (or sometimes even nonfiction), the subject of dialog tags sooner or later is going to come up. What is a dialog tag? In its purest form, it lets you know who’s saying what: “Blap blap blap,” he said.

Simple, right? Well maybe. If there are only two people in the conversation, sometimes a writer can get by with no tags at all, if each speaker has their own voice:

“I’m going to the ball game,” Joe said.
His wife Janie plucked at his sleeve and said in a small voice, “Please don’t. Your brother is supposed to stop by tonight.”
“Let him. I’m going. I’m done with that deadbeat.”
“But the money he owes us—”
“We’ll never see again, and you know it! I never want to—”

If a writer is skilled enough, such a conversation be carried on for quite a while, with no danger of losing the reader. But add a third character:

The door to the flat swung open, and tall man with tough eyes entered unannounced.
“See me again?” he finished. “That hurts, Joe. What would our sainted mother say?”
“Ben, as I live and breathe” Joe gritted. “I heard the sheriff sprung you.”
Nervously Janie picked up a pitcher of tea. “Please, guys … don’t fight, okay? Joe, isn't it good to see Ben, after all this time?"

"Come on, hon. I just made this. Let's all have some.”
The visitor’s smile was cold. “I always liked you, Janie.”
The gun almost teleported into Joe’s hand. “Time to leave, Ben.”
Janie’s hand flew to her mouth. Her nightmare was coming true at last.

And so on.
In another post we’ll talk about why some writers strictly go with “said” for each character’s tag, while others—like me—tend to mix it up a bit.

Happy writing!
Add to Technorati Favorites
Bookmark and Share


  1. I tend to prefer action beats to tags. But I agree that when using tags you should mix them up a bit. Nothing annoys me more than a book full of "he said" "she said."

  2. I like a mix of dialogue tags and action beats, although I tend to lean toward the action beat more often, simply because it's more utilitarian.

  3. I hear you. Personally I think there's a world of difference between:

    "Get OVER here, maggot!" the DI yelled.


    The DI's face flushed crimson, the knots of muscle at his jawline standing out like Brazil nuts. "Get OVER here, maggot!"

  4. I imagine in context, "Get OVER here, maggot!" is strong enough not to need either tag or beat. But going back to Ben--is he gonna shoot Joe?

  5. I labored hard this summer to write a story for a print anthology, but something about it wasn't quite right. A Beta reader finally noted something I'd completely missed - I'd written all my dialogue with the 'saids' up front at the beginning of the sentence.

    Fred said, "Look, an alien ship."
    Janice said, "I wonder if they'll stay for dinner."

    Simply switching the dialogue tags to the end of the sentence made all the difference in the world.

    "Look, an alien ship," Fred said.
    "I wonder if they'll stay for dinner," said Janice.