For something as foundational as characters speaking in a novel, you’d be shocked how many authors don’t really know how to use dialogue tags. If a group of writers were an orchestra, their collective dialogue tags would be a truly bizarre cacophony.
I’m here to help. In this post I’ll cover everything you need to know about dialogue tags, including:
- What are dialogue tags?
- Why you need dialogue tags
- Why you should stick to said/asked as much as possible
- Proper dialogue tag punctuation
- Tips on dialogue tags
What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags are the way you attribute words to a speaker in a novel. To wit:
“Here is a dialogue tag,” Nathan said.
There are many different ways of attributing speakers, but we’ll get to the nuts and bolts of that in a jiffy.
Why you need dialogue tags
Every now and then a fad or bit of writing advice will come along that tries to dispense with dialogue tags, but at the end of the day… you’ll probably want to use dialogue tags.
They’re an easy way for the reader to absorb who is saying what. You don’t need them for every single piece of dialogue in an entire novel, but they are a very versatile tool that keeps your novel flowing.
There’s rarely a good reason to force a reader to work really hard to understand a conversation. Dialogue tags smooth out the reading experience so the reader can focus on what’s happening.
Why you should stick to said/asked as much as possible
If there’s one tip I can leave you with, let it be this one: don’t worry about repeating dialogue tags.
Readers don’t notice the repetition in dialogue tags any more than they notice when you repeat the word “the.” They will notice if you change the tag every time, add lots of frills, and try to get too clever.
Sticking to said and asked as much as possible means that the dialogue tags fade into the background and it keeps the focus on the dialogue itself. You avoid doing too much work for the reader and let them interpret for themselves how something was said.
Consider this exchange. Which one reads more smoothly, Option A or B?
“You two really are cowboys,” Iceman said.
“What’s your problem, Kazanski?” Maverick asked.
“You’re everyone’s problem,” Iceman said. “That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
“That’s right! Ice…. man. I am dangerous.”
or Option B:
“You two really are cowboys,” Iceman scoffed.
“What’s your problem, Kazanski?” Maverick asked confrontationally.
“You’re everyone’s problem,” asserted Iceman. “That’s because every time you go up in the air, you’re unsafe. I don’t like you because you’re dangerous.”
“That’s right!” Maverick expounded. “Ice…. man,” he murmured quietly. “I am dangerous.”
Count me in the Option A camp.
Now, everything in moderation, including said and asked. It’s okay to change it up from time to time. But better to let the dialogue tags fade as much as possible into the background to make your dialogue pop.
Proper dialogue tag punctuation
If you’re like me, getting dialogue punctuated exactly right is a serious chore. If you’re a copyeditor, this section is basically porn.
I’m not going to get down to the level of whether quotation marks are oriented precisely like some of the copyediting sickos out there, but here are the basics of properly punctuating dialogue tags.
US vs. UK quotation marks
An important distinction before we get to the rest of the punctuation section is that in the UK, single quotes dominate, with double quotes if the character is quoting someone else:
‘Cheerio, may I bother you for a spot of tea?’ Nathan asked. ‘Sarah told me, “The tea is simply marvelous!”‘
Whereas in the United States we do everything to excess including our double quotation marks, with quotes from other people in singles:
“Coffee black,” Nathan said. “Sarah told me, ‘Coffee there is fine.'”
I’m going to use US style from here on out because ‘MERICA but bear this in mind as you’re reading and editing those more restrained dialogue tags from our friends in the British Commonwealth.
Basic dialogue tags
There are many ways to use dialogue tags, but here are the basics.
You probably know the simple ones. Comma after sentences (and no period), but you don’t need to add commas with questions and exclamation points:
“Hello,” Nathan said.
“Hello,” said Nathan.
“Hello?” Nathan asked.
“Hello?” asked Nathan.
“Hello!” Nathan shouted.
“Hello!” shouted Nathan.
Nathan said, “Hello.”
Said Nathan, “Hello.” (Weird, but technically correct!)
Note that even after a question or exclamation mark, the dialogue tag should be in lower case no matter how many times your auto-correct tries to make you capitalize it.
Adding adverbs and action after a dialogue tag
It is technically permissible, though inadvisable in my opinion, to add adverbs after dialogue. If you choose to do so despite my objections, you don’t need a comma:
“Don’t do this,” Nathan said sardonically.
If you want to add action or gestures after a dialogue tag, separate it with a comma:
“Don’t do the above,” Nathan said, pounding his fist.
Interrupting conversation with a dialogue tag
If you use a dialogue tag in the midst of conversation, the key distinction is whether dialogue interrupts a sentence or whether it comes after a complete sentence.
If the dialogue tag interrupts a sentence, there’s a comma after the dialogue tag and the dialogue continues in lower case:
“This is how,” Nathan said, “you write dialogue tags.”
If the dialogue tag comes after a sentence, there’s a period after the dialogue tag and the dialogue after is capitalized.
“This is how you write dialogue tags,” Nathan said. “Let me show you.“
Interrupting conversation with a gesture
If you interrupt with a gesture, use a period at the end of the dialogue instead of a comma.
“This is how you write dialogue tags.” Nathan scratched his chin. “Let me show you.”
Note that some people advise this is the way to do it when you’re interrupting a spoken sentence, though I think it’s best avoided if you can:
“This is how”–Nathan scratched his chin—“you write dialogue tags.”
Trailing off vs. interruptions
When a character trails off, use an ellipsis:
“I’m feeling hesitant…” Nathan said.
But when someone is interrupted, use an em dash when they’re cut off, and if they keep talking after that, add an em dash and lower case to resume:
“I don’t know,” Luke said. “I feel like–“
“Feel like what?” Yoda asked.
“–like we’re being watched,” Luke said.
Multiple paragraphs of dialogue
If a character gives a long speech, sometimes you’ll want to use multiple paragraphs of dialogue. If so, don’t close off any paragraph with a quotation mark until the character stops talking:
“…and holy cow I’ve been talking for a whole paragraph I’m just talking and talking and talking and talking.
“Wow I’m still talking but did you notice how there’s no quotation mark at the end of the previous paragraph?”
Tips for using dialogue tags
Opinions vary greatly on dialogue tags and even among published books you’ll see tons of variation. There are even books like The Road by Cormac McCarthy that don’t use quotation marks and barely have any dialogue tags entirely.
But here are my personal tips on dialogue tags:
Use dialogue tags consistently
Remember that you want dialogue tags to fade into the background. It’s totally up to you whether you want to say “Nathan said” or “said Nathan,” but whichever one you choose, be consistent and stick with it for the entire novel.
You also want to refer to characters as consistently as possible in dialogue tags. If you call someone Nathan several times and then abruptly switch to Bransford, they might start wondering if a new character just showed up.
Go easy on the adverbs and gestures
If you’re writing strong dialogue, you shouldn’t need an adverb to emphasize how something was said.
It’s fine to occasionally substitute gestures for dialogue tags in order to mix things up, but don’t go overboard with this. You can quickly fill up your novel with a bunch of empty gestures.
I personally think you should only use gestures when they’re actually meaningful, not simply to avoid a dialogue tag.
Once more for the cheap seats: dialogue tags disappear for the reader.
Err on the side of including dialogue tags
Particularly for quick back and forths where it’s readily apparent who is saying what, you don’t have to include a dialogue tag for every single line of dialogue.
But if you’re ever in doubt: include one. Err on the side of making it clear for the reader.
Any questions about dialogue tags? See anything I missed? Take to the comments!
Need help with your book? I’m available for manuscript edits, query critiques, and coaching!
For my best advice, check out my online classes (NEW!), my guide to writing a novel and my guide to publishing a book.
And if you like this post: subscribe to my newsletter!
Art: Prinzregent Luitpold und seine Schwester Adelgunde von Modena-Este auf den Priener Schären by Franz Roubaud
Susan Matsumoto says
Excellent blog post, Nathan. Nice to find in one small space all the references on how to add dialog tags. I tried to locate the right reference in the Chicago Manual of Style, but got lost in the weeds. Your timing was perfect for my edit. Thank you!
Luisa Adam says
I think using ‘said’ and ‘asked’ all the time can be a bit flat and using an occasional alternative such as ‘scoffed’ at the start (followed by fading ‘saids’ and ‘asks’ in the rest of the exchange) can help establish the tone of the dialogue as well as the characters and also help animate the text. In the example given (between Maverick and IceMan), the voices of Tom Cruise and Val Kilmer were playing in my head, but I think I would have read it differently and probably found it a bit flat if I didn’t know the film Top Gun. So, I think a little bit, used seamlessly, is o.k. but not too much. It depends on the type of book too, of course.
John Levins says
Thanks for organizing this advice so clearly, it’s a great guide for all authors, both new writers and experienced ones!
Ken Hughes says
A lot of excellent advice, but two things I have to add:
In your tips on punctuation, you left out the essential rule: it’s period-endquote-lowercase that is changed to comma-endquote-lowercase. Or with names and other proper nouns, imagine what case they’d be in as pronouns — then you see the difference between
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello.” He said it with a smile.
And for avoiding fancier tags, I’m afraid you’re telling only half the story. Good tagging can and should be a variety between “going small” with a simple Said or no tag at all, and “going big” with a moment of description (why “shout” when he can “bang his fist on the table”?). I agree that “he shouted” and “he said angrily” type tags are weak and distracting, Telling rather than Showing, Still, those tags can be useful for a narrow range of moments that deserve just a bit of detail and no more, and that decision is best made by comparing them to the other options.
“Only say Said” is a quick tip for avoiding the worst case of too many Shouteds, but it isn’t the whole picture.
Nathan Bransford says
I’m sorry, I keep looking at the post and your comment but what’s the essential rule I left out? I realize I didn’t organize it quite the way you have it, but I feel like I cover the essence of this:
“Hello,” he said.
“Hello.” He said it with a smile.
In the “interrupting dialogue with action” section? ”
And on mixing it up and using gestures, don’t I cover it?
“Now, everything in moderation, including said and asked. It’s okay to change it up from time to time. But better to let the dialogue tags fade as much as possible into the background to make your dialogue pop.”
“It’s fine to occasionally substitute gestures for dialogue tags in order to mix things up, but don’t go overboard with this. You can quickly fill up your novel with a bunch of empty gestures.”
Ryan Field says
I’m going to bookmark this because it’s an excellent, concise reference. I’ve been searching for something and this basically says it all. This one does it well.
Sharon Bonin-Pratt (Shari) says
Congratulations on making a boring topic fun to read as well as informative. Moderate numbers of dialogue tags help readers keep track of who’s speaking, and that’s all they really have to do.
Personally I dislike writers who not only refuse to ever tag but also skip quotation marks. I find myself going back to identify character lines: Nathan talks, Bransford talks, Nathan, Bransford, Nathan, Nathan – wait, who’s talking now? It’s exhausting and yanks me out of the story.
Neil Larkins says
It seems that often such authors want to brand themselves with a unique (read, non-traditional) writing style as much as the stories they write. Like Nathan said, if the sentence construction makes you work to negotiate it, the story gets lost and the reader finally gives up out of frustration or exhaustion. As a rule I never read such books if I can help it. Thanks for visiting this topic again, Nathan. It, along with your other tips, has improved my writing immensely.
SE White says
“Maverick asked confrontationally,” may be my new favorite awful dialogue tag. It’s right up there with my favorite worst use of adverb: “breasted boobily to the stairs and titted downward” from that one Reddit thread which went viral.
Thank you for this guide. As always it’s concise, well organized, and super useful.
Jill Purtee says
Nicely said (no pun intended). Thank you.
I totally agree.
Especially in adult literature, dialogue tags should disappear by using “said” and “asked.”
That said, when reading a story book to a child, I would like to have the speaker named at the beginning of the sentence and a more colorful dialogue tag used.
This would help me read the book the way the tag describes as well as to use different voices for different characters.
When this isn’t done, then while I’m reading aloud, I have to read ahead with my eyes in order to determine which character is speaking and how they are speaking.
I’ve got a question I hope you can answer.
I’m working on a novel with a few quite helpful betas and there’s one thing we’ve been arguing about. When I have multiple speakers (say, shipmates on a vessel or prisoners in a jail, etc.) who are speaking different lines but without revealing their names & identities which aren’t important, I always put these dialogue lines within one single paragraph, only separating the lines by ‘ (dialogue tags; singular in my case as I’m a Brit). E.g.:
‘Look at this ship,’ one sailor said. ‘How grand and big she is.’ ‘Where’s she coming from?’ The sailors babbled. ‘We might be in trouble.’ ‘We better try to veer ashore.’ etc.
I think it works well, but I’ve been reading on other websites that the rule of thumb is one line per speaker. I understand this, but in the above example, the multiple speakers represent the ship’s crew, and their opinions are more or less the same, adding extra info to the plot.
If I gave them each a line, it would be sort of wasteful to use this much paper (or computer screen space, for that matter.)
What’s your take, please? Cheers,
Nathan Bransford says
I don’t think there are hard and fast rules here, but I think your approach makes it especially confusing because you’re mixing a few different approaches. On the one hand you’re citing what one sailor is saying (emphasized below), then you’re citing multiple sailors babbling and including all the quotation marks for the various lines.
‘Look at this ship,’ **one sailor said.** ‘How grand and big she is.’ ‘Where’s she coming from?’ **The sailors babbled.** ‘We might be in trouble.’ ‘We better try to veer ashore.’ etc.
The conventional approach is indeed one per line and that’s probably how I’d handle it, but you could also have collective speech. So something like:
‘Look at this ship!’ the sailors babbled to each other. ‘How grand and big she is. Where’s she coming from? We might be in trouble. We better try to veer ashore.’
Johannah S. says
One thing to note about your Cormac McCarthy example, Spanish language conventions for dialogue are very different from English. In my reading experience, most common is to use an m-dash instead of quotation marks, but often nothing is used at all, and I think that’s the tradition McCarthy uses.
Most typical in Spanish (from https://claratiscar.com/como-escribir-dialogos/):
—Hola ¿eres María? —dijo una voz desconocida.
—Depende, ¿quién eres? —Ladeé la cabeza para ver su cara, oculta por un sombrero.
Shawn Wolf says
Another thing you can mention is that if you have a paragraph of dialogue, be sure to put the tag in early, so the reader doesn’t have to wade through the entire paragraph to determine who’s talking. (If the speaker can’t be determined some other way.)