"What are dialogue tags?" you ask.

Doug Landsborough
July 27, 2022
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For the vast majority of us writers, your characters are going to speak in your book. Dialogue is an intrinsic part of modern storytelling and is a powerful tool for authors. It can control the pace of your writing, assist with character development, reveal key points within your plot, add in a much-needed dash of humor, and so much more.

Unfortunately, writing proper dialogue can be one of the most difficult things for writers—especially first-time or newer writers—to grasp. This is especially true when it comes to dialogue tags.

As a writer, I still remember how atrocious my dialogue tags were in my first novel’s first draft. As an editor, I see how much people struggle with these attributions all the time.

But do not fret, future bestseller, because you’ll be a dialogue tag expert by the time we’re done here. We’re going to cover:

  • What dialogue tags are
  • Different examples of dialogue tags
  • Using said vs. other dialogue tags
  • When you should (and shouldn’t) be using dialogue tags
  • How to use dialogue tags properly

“I’m so excited to learn!” the reader surely said.

"What is a Dialogue Tag?" you ask.

Okay, that’s the first and last time I’m going to make a heading like that. First and foremost, we need to establish what dialogue tags are.

Dialogue tags are phrases in your writing that tell the reader who is speaking. Also called attributions—which is handy because dialogue starts to look weird the more you see it—these phrases also inform the reader how something is being said.

These tags are important to help clarify our writing, especially in a scene where multiple characters are speaking.

We’ll be covering some examples of dialogue tags next, but here is a very standard one just to get your head around what we’re discussing:

“Wow, I’m learning so much,” the reader said.

In this example, the reader said is our dialogue tag. Assuming you’ve read a book or two in your time, then you’ve seen hundreds of dialogue tags. We’re all writers here, so you’ve probably read a few dozen or hundreds of books, which means you’ve seen thousands of attributions before.

So let’s break down some of ‌these tags.

Examples of Dialogue Tags

Honestly, I’m not going to list every possible dialogue tag, because that list would go on for way too long. Instead, let’s look at what forms an attribution. Then we can talk about different examples.

In their simplest forms, dialogue tags are  just two words. For any math fans out there, here’s a formula:

Noun/pronoun + speaking verb = dialogue tag

Noun/pronoun: This is a character’s name or a pronoun (she, he, they, the magician, the killer, my best friend, etc.) that references who is doing the talking.

Speaking verb: This is a verb that is either says/said (depending on the tense you’re using), a synonym for those words (stated, claimed, etc.), or a related verb that describes something less basic than just speaking (shouted, muttered, etc.).

Here are some examples of basic tags:

  • She said.
  • He declared.
  • They whispered.
  • The magician recited.
  • The killer yelled.
  • My best friend joked.

You can also add some flair to your attributions by including adverbs, objects, or other details. Check out our last examples with some added flair:

  • She said excitedly.
  • He declared to the crowd.
  • They whispered in the silent library.
  • The magician recited, feeling the spell form at her fingertips.
  • The killer yelled, victory assured.
  • My best friend joked like they always did in awkward situations.

It can get repetitive to always have the noun/pronoun then the verb, so you can always swap them around. Note that this works much better for nouns than pronouns and can’t precede dialogue (but we’ll cover that in our how-to section).

  • Recited the magician
  • Yelled the killer

To Said or Not to Said

Within the halls (online forums) of passionate writers, there are two different schools of thought on dialogue tags.

One side, who we will dub the Said Purists, argue that dialogue tags should exclusively use says/said. Synonyms and variations of says/said are rarely welcome amongst this group.

On the other hand, you have the Attribution Anarchists. These folks rarely use says/said, instead opting for more colorful language like what you saw above.

Both sides have reasonable grounds for their stances, and there isn’t one way that is objectively better than the other (and anyone who tells you otherwise is just snobby). Here are some of the justifications for these two camps.

Said Purists: Using only says/said helps dialogue tags blend into your writing and doesn’t distract your reader with unnecessarily complex or unique words. This is great for harnessing the function of attributions without endangering your reader’s immersion in your story.

Attribution Anarchists: Using only says/said is boring and lazy. Using more descriptive verbs and more details enhances your reader’s experience and adds to your story.

Realistically, like most choices with polar opposites, the sweet spot is somewhere in the middle. Says/said should be used more often than not. It’s simple, it’s easy to understand, it gets the job done, and it doesn’t interfere with your reader’s experience.

But sprinkle in some flair every now and then. Writing is an art, after all, and embracing some words other than says/said in your dialogue tags can enhance a scene, paint a more vivid picture, and add more depth to characters. That said, completely avoiding says/said will be exhausting, cumbersome, and can come off as a tad pretentious.

A Note on Adverbs

One more thing to note while we’re in this section: adverbs.

Just like says/said (which I’m just going to reference with said from now on), writers are diametrically opposed on the use of adverbs. Some writers think adverbs are just fine. Others think they are the mark lazy writing. In Stephen King’s On Writing, King claims that adverbs are like a crutch and should be avoided.

And he uses adverbs.

Everybody uses adverbs to some degree. They are a part of writing. They will show up in your dialogue tags, too:

  • She said loudly.
  • He declared resolutely.
  • They whispered carefully.

This isn’t wrong, nor is it bad writing.

You should, however, be careful about the frequency with which you use adverbs. They are fine in moderation, but overuse of adverbs can lead to boring, repetitive writing. For most instances where we use adverbs, there are better words we can use.

I often think of this line from N.H. Kleinbaum's Dead Poets Society when thinking about adverbs:

“So avoid using the word ‘very’ because it’s lazy. A man is not very tired, he is exhausted. Don’t use very sad, use morose.”

A book filled with intense words like morose would be a tough read, but so would one overflowing with adverbs. So, when you’re revising your first draft, look for ways to replace some of the adverbs in your dialogue tags with some flair.

When to use Dialogue Tags

We know what dialogue tags are. We know what they can look like. But when the heck are we supposed to use them?

Establish who is speaking: More than anything else, dialogue tags tell the reader who’s speaking. So, if a conversation has just started or you have a few paragraphs without dialogue, an attribution is important so we know who is saying what.

How something is being said: If it’s important for us to know how a line is being said, a dialogue tag can drive that point home. 

Switching speakers: I’d argue that most conversations involve more than one person, right? Dialogue tags can clarify which participant in that conversation is speaking at which time. I probably don’t need to say this, but understanding who is speaking in your story is pretty dang important.

It’s also important to know when you shouldn’t be using dialogue tags.

Use tags sparingly: Even if you’re a hardcore Said Purist, repeated use of dialogue tags can be distracting for a reader. The last thing any writer wants is for a reader to lose their immersion in your work.

Shorter dialogue = less tags: If your lines of dialogue are only a few words long, try reducing the number of attributions you use. Writing starts to look real funky if the dialogue tag is longer than the dialogue itself, so keep that in mind when adding flair.

Conversation with two people: In a conversation with just two people, it’s easy to completely omit attributions once you’ve established who is speaking and when. This is especially true in a back-and-forth conversation with little action or prose in between what the two characters are saying. For example:

“See? Dialogue tags aren’t that hard,” Doug said.
“You’re right!” the reader replied.
“Do you have any questions about them?”
“Actually, a few, if you don’t mind.”

Most people can infer who was saying each of the last two lines without any sort of attribution.

Use a character’s voice: Instead of using cumbersome tags, rely on a character’s unique voice to tell the reader who’s speaking. Accents, switching between languages, tics, stutters, and mannerisms are all ways you can differentiate your characters without telling the reader who it is. If you need help mapping out your character’s finer traits, check out this article and resource.

Indirect dialogue: Not every spoken word needs to be explicitly said. Sometimes you can summarize a character’s dialogue in your prose and skip using quotation marks and attributions altogether. Bear in mind this shouldn’t be used too frequently, but it can be helpful. Check this out:

“Hey, I heard you read a cool article about dialogue tags,” your friend said. “Can you tell me what you learned?”
The reader summarized the article for their friend, explaining the intricacies of attributions and how awesome the article’s author was.

This is especially helpful when summarizing something you just described in detail and prevents repetition.

How to use Dialogue Tags

Now it’s time to get down to business. The brass tacks. The meat and potatoes.

How the heck do you actually use dialogue tags?

Dialogue tags are tricky because they’re versatile (meaning they can show up in different places and say different things), seemingly contradict some punctuation rules, and can just be a headache to get right. But knowing how to properly use them is essential to being a writer.

Placement

First, where do we put dialogue tags? We actually have three different locations where you can place attributions: before dialogue, in the middle of it, or after it.

Before - Placing a dialogue tag before its associated speech tells your reader who’s speaking before the first syllable is spoken. This is great for setting the right voice immediately or if the speaker is just as important as what is being said. Note that you'll have to rearrange the tag so it goes noun-verb whenever it appears first.. Here’s an example:

Dorothy said, “Wow, this place filled with flying monkeys and toxic flowers and evil witches is actually terrifying.”

In the middle - Sometimes an attribution can interrupt dialogue. This could mean it shows up in the middle of a single line or appears between two sentences in the same piece of dialogue. Placing an attribution in the middle of speech can help you control the pacing or add details about the dialogue. Here’s an example of each:

“It wasn’t my fault, but my house,” Dorothy whispered, pausing ever so slightly, “fell on someone.”
“That’s what they all say,” the police captain of Oz muttered. “We’ll take the rest of your statement down at the station.”

After - The most common place you’ll find dialogue tags is after a character’s dialogue. Yes, this may limit your ability to control mid-speech pacing. But your readers should be able, at least to some degree, to determine who is speaking via your surrounding prose and how you’ve developed your characters. Placing an attribution after dialogue allows it to do its job while being as subtle and unobtrusive as possible. Remember, we never want to break our reader’s immersion in our story, and placing dialogue tags after dialogue is the best way to keep them out of the way.

“You’ve got to be kidding! Dorothy’s innocent!” the Cowardly Lion said, suddenly finding his voice.

Knowing where dialogue tags go is only part of the battle. Next, we’re going to cover all the punctuation and capitalization rules of dialogue tags; this is where most writers slip up.

Punctuation & Capitalization

Maybe you’ve figured out some of the rules through books you’ve read or the examples in this blog, but I’m going to lay them out plainly for you here. Bookmark this blog or print off this section, because this information will make you a dialogue expert in no time.

Commas

In most situations, commas are going to be your best friend. Commas are what connect dialogue tags to their dialogue unless there is an exclamation or question mark at the end of your dialogue. Let’s look at the three placement options for attributions and how you use commas with them.

Before - If your dialogue tag comes before its associated dialogue, you place a comma after the tag but before the speech. You also capitalize the first word in the dialogue, even if it isn’t a proper noun.

Dorothy said, “Wow, this place filled with flying monkeys and toxic flowers and evil witches is actually terrifying.”

There are no variations of this. If your dialogue tag comes first, use a comma and capitalize.

In the middle - We have two different variations of dialogue tags that come in the middle, so our rules are a little varied, too. If your dialogue tag is in the middle of a sentence, you place a comma before the first closing quotation mark and a comma at the end of the dialogue tag. You do not capitalize anything that wouldn’t normally be capitalized.

“It wasn’t my fault, but my house,” Dorothy whispered, pausing ever so slightly, “fell on someone.”

However, if your dialogue tag splits up two separate sentences, then your tag ends in a period rather than a comma and you capitalize the dialogue that follows.

“That’s what they all say,” the police captain of Oz muttered. “We’ll take the rest of your statement down at the station.”

After - Finally, if your attribution comes at the end of your speech, you simply put a comma at the end of your dialogue, close it with a quotation mark, and add your tag.

“You’ve got to be kidding! Dorothy’s innocent,” the Cowardly Lion said, suddenly finding his voice.

Exclamation & Question Marks

“But Doug,” you shout at your screen, “what about exclamation marks? What about question marks?”

Gold star for you for thinking ahead! In both situations, you replace a comma with your punctuation of choice: exclamation mark for excitement or shouting, question mark for asking a question.

The rules for capitalization still apply, though. You do not capitalize the first word of the dialogue tag that follows these punctuation marks unless you normally would (i.e., proper nouns). 

Let me repeat that: you do not capitalize the first word of the dialogue tag that follows an exclamation or question mark.

Here are some examples:

“You think we haven’t heard that before?” the police captain asked.
“You don’t understand!” the Tin Man shouted. “It’s not like she chose where her house landed!”

Also, keep in mind that both exclamation marks and question marks are terminal punctuation, which means they end a sentence. So, if you have more dialogue after your attribution, it should be capitalized as normal. 

Other Punctuation Options

There are some more obscure punctuation options you might come across while writing dialogue. These might only happen once or twice in your book, but it’s worth knowing how to handle them.

Em dashes (—) - Em dashes can be used at the end of dialogue to show that the speaker was suddenly cut off. In these situations, you probably won’t have a dialogue tag that follows. Rather, skip right to the action or description of whatever  cut them off. If you really want a dialogue tag, treat the em dash as a comma.

Ellipses (...) - Ellipses can show that a character’s speech is trailing off or they’re leaving something hanging for other characters to infer themselves. Here’s the thing: ellipses in fiction should be used sparingly, if at all. And those who use them tend to overuse them. A lot. There are much better ways of showing your reader—through dialogue tags or action—what you’re hoping your ellipses convey. If you must use them, treat them as a comma as well for attributions that come after speech. But honestly, just take them out.

Asking Questions

A bit more information about dialogue tags when a character is asking a question. You now know how to use a question mark properly with dialogue tags, but don’t forget to change the tag itself.

If someone is asking something, using said is kind of awkward. And it actually goes against the subtlety of using said as a dialogue tag, because most readers will wonder why you used said instead of asked.

So, for questions, just switch out said with asked in your tags.

Don’t forget that you can add some of that flair, too. Rather than ask, a character can ponder, wonder aloud, query, question, implore, beseech, and so much more.

Thoughts and Non-Verbal Communication

Dialogue tags can be used with thoughts and non-verbal communication, too. For a full breakdown of writing thoughts and internal dialogue, click here.

You really don’t need to change anything: the placement, punctuation, and capitalization rules all still apply if the communication isn’t verbal. It might look something like this:

Why am I always the one picking up the slack? she wondered.
“Don’t worry, I’ll help out,” her brother signed to her, as if reading her mind.

Using Action Instead

Listen, you don’t always need a dialogue tag. We covered that earlier in the article, so you already know that. A great alternative to attributions is using action instead.

Dialogue tags can get repetitive and dull. Dialogue itself can be boring to read if you have paragraphs upon paragraphs of it. Luckily, we can break up our dialogue—whether it’s just one or two lines or a couple paragraphs—with action.

Here are a few examples (going back to our alternate Wizard of Oz story):

“I don’t care if she chose where her house landed or not.” The police captain snapped magical handcuffs on Dorothy’s wrists. “That’s for the court to decide.”
“You can’t take her!” Tears streamed down the Scarecrow’s face.
“It’s okay, my friends.” A smile plastered Dorothy’s face. “You know I’ll just break out again.”

You might notice something weird about the actions that have replaced the dialogue tags in those examples. I want to share a golden rule about dialogue tags that many authors don’t understand until their editor has shredded their draft.

Dialogue tag golden rule: Dialogue tags only reference the words being said by explaining who said them and, if you want, how they were said. If you have something that doesn’t explicitly refer to what was being said, it is not a dialogue tag.

Because our actions refer to other things going on in the scene and not the words being spoken, they follow conventional punctuation rules. They are their own sentences and should be treated as such. 

The same goes for actions people think are replacements for say/said. Words like laugh, sigh, yawn, etc. are not replacements for say/said. You can’t laugh a line of dialogue. You can’t sigh words.

You can say things with a sigh, laugh, yawn, etc. So, when in doubt, ask yourself if your dialogue tag directly references the speech it’s attached to or if it should be its own complete sentence.

You’re One Step Closer to Writing Your Best Book

Like I said at the very beginning, understanding and properly using dialogue tags is just one of the tools you need in your writing toolkit. It’s essential for you to be able to use your characters’ communication as effectively and dynamically as possible, in whichever way works best for your style. 

But us writers are always learning and growing. Always adding to our toolkits so we can write our best possible book. And then we make sure the book after that is even better.

The best way to do that is to get practical, informative (and dare I say fun) articles, resources, and information delivered right to your inbox. You can get all of that and more for free when you sign up for the Dabble weekly newsletter. No spam, no junk, just useful information to help you grow as a writer.

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And happy writing!

Doug Landsborough

Doug Landsborough can’t get enough of writing. Whether freelancing as an editor, blog writer, or ghostwriter, Doug is a big fan of the power of words. In his spare time, he writes about monsters, angels, and demons under the name D. William Landsborough. When not obsessing about sympathetic villains and wondrous magic, Doug enjoys board games, horror movies, and spending time with his wife, Sarah.