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!
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Art: Prinzregent Luitpold und seine Schwester Adelgunde von Modena-Este auf den Priener Schären by Franz Roubaud