Dialogue tagging

Dialogue tags (or speech tags) are used to indicate which character is speaking. Some authors like to use fancy dialogue tags (1–9).

  1. announced Sam
  2. opined Phil
  3. offered Dan
  4. wondered Sam
  5. confirmed Phil
  6. suggested Dan
  7. questioned Sam
  8. orated Phil
  9. insisted Dan

By using dialogue tags like these, the author is analysing what the character says. The reader may not agree with this analysis, but that’s not the point; the point is that the author imposes themself into the story: ‘The line of dialogue belongs to the character; the verb is the writer sticking his nose in’ Elmore 2001.

If the author writes good dialogue, there is no need for the author to stick their nose in: it will be obvious from the dialogue what the speaker is saying. A combination of dialogue and action beats should allow the reader to infer whether a character is angry, lying, etc.

The best dialogue tag

So if you don’t use one of these fancy dialogue tags that seem so expressive at first sight, what does the discerning author use? Elmore 2001 has the answer: plain old said.

Said is so neutral as to go unnoticed by many readers and no matter how many times it appears in the story, it gets neither repetitive nor irksome in the same way as (1–9) can and do. That said, not every utterance needs a dialogue tag. The way to avoid overusing said is not to resort to fancy dialogue tags, but to remove the tag altogether once it’s been established who is speaking.

Imagine a conversation between Sam and Phil. If every one of their utterances was tagged, it would soon grow old. When it’s obvious who is speaking, a dialogue tag isn’t needed (10).

  1. ‘I was looking for you last night,’ said Sam.
    ‘Oh,’ said Phil. ‘I was at home.’
    ‘I rang the doorbell. You didn’t answer.’
    ‘I might have been in the bath then. What time was it?’
    ‘I phoned as well.’
    ‘Like I said, I was in the bath.’
    ‘For four hours?’

If this device were used all the time, however, the characters would be rendered immobile. People are rarely immobile, so why should characters be?

If you are thinking that said is perhaps a ittle too dull and that you’d like to spice it up with an adverb, think again: Elmore 2001 calls this ‘a mortal sin’. The adverb that is most overused in dialogue tags in my experience is quietly. I have read dialogue tags like ‘Sam said quietly’ so many times that it takes me right out of the story with an eye roll. The lesson here is avoid adverbs.

Using action beats instead of dialogue tags

Another way to indicate who is speaking is to add an action beat (11). This has the added benefit of giving a little extra information about Sam, whether it’s that she delayed answering to give herself a little extra thinking time, or something about her state of mind. It’s an unobtrusive way of adding to the characterisation of Sam.

  1. ‘I was looking for you last night,’ said Sam.
    ‘Oh,’ said Phil. ‘I was at home.’
    ‘I rang the doorbell. You didn’t answer.’
    Sam shifted in her armchair. ‘I might have been in the bath then. What time was it?’
    Phil leant forward a little. ‘I phoned as well.’
    ‘Like I said, I was in the bath.’
    ‘For four hours?’

Adding action beats also helps ground the dialogue in the surroundings. Notice that not only is Sam uncomfortble about something, she’s also sitting on an armchair. Little details like that allow the reader to imagine the setting without having it dumped on them.

Conclusion

Generally, the reader should be able to distinguish between the different characters from their voices alone. However, it’s good to make it clear to the reader so that they don’t have to work too hard to follow the dialogue

Forgo all those websites with lists of words to use instead of said. Instead, use said if you need a dialogue tag, but prefer an action beat or nothing at all.

Reference

  • Leonard, Elmore 2001 Elmore Leonard’s 10 rules of writing Harper Collins