Skip to content

“Say what?” she intoned incredulously.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Yes, that’s right. Today’s topic is on dialogue tags.

Here’s a direct quote from many, many critiques/contest entries I’ve judged: “Avoid said/asked dialogue tags.” Why? Because.

Yes, back in the day when most of us started writing, the books we were reading used dialogue tags such as:

…she announced
…she stated
…he commanded
…he explained
…she muttered
…he contradicted
…he assured
…she expressed
…he said cheerfully
…he said heavily
…she echoed
…he said laughingly
…he demanded
…she whispered breathlessly
…she intoned incredulously

Remember those? Because we were so used to reading them (and yes, I pulled out two books that I took all of those from—one from the mid-1908s, the other from the early 1990s), that’s how we attributed our dialogue when we first started writing.

But times—and accepted styles—have changed.

“The only attribution (dialogue tag) you’ll normally need is ‘said,’ although there will be times when more specific verbs such as ‘whisper’ or ‘yell’ or ‘ask’ might be called for” (William G. Tapply, “Dialogue: The lifebood of the mystery story,” The Writer, October 2008, p. 31).

When I was in graduate school it was explained this way: readers see “said” or “asked” much like a period or comma. It’s more like punctuation than anything else, therefore those are unobtrusive.

Sometimes, when dialogue is moving quickly and you need to pepper in an attribution here and there to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking (especially when there are more than two characters “on stage”), a good said dialogue tag can be particularly useful. Embellished dialogue tags—those using more descriptive verbs or, even worse, adverbs—come across as author intrusion. If your character has just explained something in dialogue, the reader knows it and doesn’t need a “she explained” tag. Same thing with “argued,” “elaborated,” or “confirmed.”

But better an embellished verb than an adverb! Elmore Leonard wrote: “Never use an adverb to modify the verb ‘said’ . . . he admonished gravely. To use an adverb in this way (or almost any way) is a mortal sin. The writer is now exposing himself in earnest, using a word that distracts and can interrupt the rhythm of the exchange” (qtd. Tapply, p. 32)

Why are adverbs bad? Because, even more than the descriptive verbs, adverbs tell rather than show:

    “Say what?” she asked incredulously.
    “Say what?” Her eyes widened and jaw went slack.

If you feel you need to emphasize the incredulity or quickness or cheerfulness with which your character has said something, instead of adding an adverb, look at the dialogue and the surrounding narrative/introspection and do whatever you can to show the emotion/speed/whatever through the dialogue/narrative than through an adverb. If your character asks something “nervously,” show the nervousness through her body language or through the creepy-crawly feeling on the inside of her skin.

So how can you get rid of dialogue tags and use action/introspection to indicate who’s speaking and the emotion and action going on in a scene?

    “Are you all right, ma’am?” the police officer asked as he came around the vehicle.

    “I think so,” Kelly answered hoarsely, coughing from the powder the airbag had released.

This can be changed to:

    “Are you all right, ma’am?” A police officer came into view in the passenger-side window.

    “I think so.” Kelly’s throat stung and scratched, and she coughed, unable to get the nasty, metallic-tasting powder from the airbag out of her windpipe.

See the difference? Not only does it get rid of the attribution tag, but it takes us deeper into Kelly’s POV—showing what she’s experiencing instead of just telling what she’s doing.

What’s your experience with using dialogue tags? Any that you’re fond of using that you’ve been dinged on by editors or in contests?

  1. Monday, October 20, 2008 11:34 am

    I use only said and asked 98% of the time. I NEVER use an adverb on a tag (one of my biggest pet peeves, because as you showed there are better ways to get your point across).

    Basically I follow the said and asked only rule, with an occasional whispered or some other tag here and there. Said disappears in the writing and I think makes it flow better.

    May I say I’m on an anti-quick of the use of the word “retort” after reading Twilight and seeing it practically every other page (If you want BAD dialogue examples just pick up that book – you can find them on ANY page.)


  2. Monday, October 20, 2008 11:43 am

    “anti-kick” *sigh* lack of sleep does terrible things to my already bad spelling 😀


  3. Monday, October 20, 2008 12:29 pm

    I much prefer action beats to dialogue tags.

    As a reader, I find that my eye visually skips everything after the closing quotation mark, up to the period. It speeds up the reading. But when I do slow myself down, I’m sure I read books regularly with dialogue tags other than “said”. In fact, if the only thing I find is “said”, it starts to get repetitious and therefore, annoying. I’m thinking there must be some opportunity for balance.


  4. Monday, October 20, 2008 12:34 pm

    I try to avoid dialogue tags, too. But when I absolutely need one, I stick with ‘said’ as well. Of course, there are always exceptions to the rule, as with everything in life.

    I like using beats, as they add so much more to the story than tags do.


  5. Jess permalink
    Monday, October 20, 2008 12:39 pm

    Oh man. The Twilight thing is so true. In the second book, she gets marginally better about this, but people start saying things “through unmoving lips.” Perhaps vampires have speakers inside their mouths. I don’t know. I’ve never met one.
    The worst is when people “smile” things. I mean, how does that work?
    But I really like “said gently” and “said softly.” So I try to save it for special occasions. Like chocolate.


  6. Monday, October 20, 2008 11:25 pm

    Ouch. I have a weakness with tags. I’ve been working on cutting them out more…thanks for the post!


  7. Tuesday, October 21, 2008 10:27 am

    It depends on the rhythm I’m trying to create with the narrative and dialogue. I prefer beats, but I’ll stick a said in there when I want to slow the rhythm or create a pause where a period or a comma or beat won’t work. Reading my scenes out loud makes it clear whether “said” is needed. I usually end up weeding them out for a cleaner, leaner flow.


  8. Wednesday, October 22, 2008 2:50 pm

    Thanks for the great explanation and examples. This is the clearest post/article that I’ve read about dialogue tags in a long time.


  9. Wednesday, October 22, 2008 2:54 pm

    I’ve found some of those “embellished” verbs sneaking into my dialogue tags in Menu for Romance. We’ll see what happens when the editors get hold of it!


  10. Robert Graham permalink
    Thursday, November 6, 2008 10:52 am

    Tagging order:

    I borrowed the examples above and simply rearranged the tagging. Why couldn’t this sequencing work?

    A police officer came into view in the passenger-side window. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

    Kelly’s throat stung and scratched, and she coughed, unable to get the nasty, metallic-tasting powder from the airbag out of her windpipe. “I think so.”

    By ordering the tagging this way, you (1) can easily avoid “he said” “she said”, but you also (2) help the reader know AHEAD of time who’s doing the talking, AND often times, in what emotion the words are said.

    I can’t tell you how upset I became when I used to try to read stories out loud to my young sons. I’d be *enthusiastically* reading dialog between two or more characters, only to crash and burn dramatically when I discovered that I’d misread a long line of dialog – in the wrong voice, or with the wrong emotion.

    I vowed then and there that if I were ever to write a story I’d NOT identify a character (and the mood of his or her speech) AFTER the character spoke.

    Then, what if the above examples were tweaked a bit to allow a peek inside the characters mental state?

    A police officer ran up to car and frantically pulled at the shattered passenger-side window. “Are you all right, ma’am?”

    Kelly’s throat stung and scratched, and she coughed, unable to get the nasty, metallic-tasting powder from the airbag out of her windpipe. Dazed, she turned toward the officer. “I think so.”

    Concerning the tagging order, or sequence, (and feeling the need to telegraph the reader as to the mood/emotion/tone of the character’s words) am I off anywhere here? I ask this sincerely.




  11. Thursday, November 6, 2008 11:01 am

    Yes, having the tag before the dialogue can work quite effectively. Perhaps by giving the example I did of having it follow the dialogue above didn’t show that it should be mixed up. Having the tag come either always after or always before the dialogue creates a monotonous pattern that would get really old really fast.

    Sometimes, the words spoken are more important than the emotion/action behind them. Sometimes, the person’s thought is the more important thing. But just like there needs to be a balance between the amount of dialogue and the amount of narrative, there needs to be a balance in how the dialogue/narrative are arranged so that the reader doesn’t get lulled into a stupor by being presented with the same pattern every time.


  12. Robert Graham permalink
    Thursday, November 20, 2008 1:01 pm

    Got sidetracked. Busy time of the year.

    Thank you for your response.



  13. Tuesday, November 6, 2012 2:36 pm

    Very helpful discussion. I have a problem with the beats I add getting repetitious, too. I like Robert’s idea of ocassionally having the action come before the words. I often find that in back and forth conversation, you sometimes don’t need anything after the dialogue. The reader can tell who’s speaking pretty easily if there are not a lot of folks in the room.


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: