Last Friday I talked about the basics of dialogue with basic writing principle #2. Now, I want to follow that up and talk about dialogue tags.
What is a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is, simply, a tag attached to dialogue to show who’s speaking and, in some case, how they’re saying it.
The most common dialogue tag is said. As in, he said/she said. The dialogue tag shows who is speaking. This is important, especially if you have more than two characters in a scene. Without a dialogue tag, it would be nearly impossible to know who’s saying what, and to whom.
What is Not a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag is NOT a sentence at the end of dialogue. Too often writers want to make dialogue tags more confusing than they should be. A dialogue tag is attached directly to dialogue. Anything beyond that is narration.
Here’s an example:
“I love bubbles,” she said.
“Well I hate them,” he said.
The “he said/she said” are the dialogue tags. If you only have two characters, you do not need to include a tag after every line of dialogue. A two-character back-and-forth isn’t that difficult to follow. Space your dialogue tags where it makes the most sense for helping readers follow the exchange. This is where an editor or beta readers will come in helpful to let you know where you’re using too many dialogue tags.
When three or more characters are conversing in a scene, you might need to have a tag for each line of dialogue. HOWEVER, do not, whatever you do, use he said/she said after each line. There are many other creative ways to show who is speaking.
Here are two:
1) Said Bookisms
A said bookisms is any word other than said that you attach to dialogue such as shrieked, hissed, replied, responded, inquired, hollered, etc.
These words can be helpful for adding creativity to your dialogue scenes, but keep in mind that said is still going to be your main use. Many authors think that words like said and asked are boring, but the beauty of said is that it is a word that practically disappears when you are reading it. You want your readers to focus on the dialogue, not the dialogue tag, which is why you will use said as your main tag and mix it up every once in a while with a said bookism.
2) Action Tag
An action tag is a great way to show who is speaking through showing instead of telling. (Read more about show vs. tell here)
Here’s an example of an action tag: Samantha glared at Austin. “I hate you.”
The action tag is “Samantha glared at Austin.” This shows that Samantha said the line of dialogue, but we don’t need any tag attached. If you had added “she said” to the end of the dialogue, it would have been unnecessary, and I as your editor would have suggested you remove it.
I have a lot more to say about dialogue tags, including more examples of said bookisms and also a few common mistakes I see regarding what is and what is not a said bookism. But I’ll save that for another post because I want to keep this to the basics. I hope this was helpful to you! Do you have anything to add? Tell me in the comments!