5 “Don’ts” for Using Dialogue Tags

This post is similar to one I recently wrote called Basic Tips for Writing Dialogue, but being able to write good dialogue is a crucial element to readers liking your book and coming back for more.  Therefore, I am of the mind-set that you cannot read too many tips about dialogue. Ergo…

1. Don’t use dialogue tags after every line of dialogue.

If you do this, your scene will be repetitive and boring. Trust that readers will be able to follow along, and if you’re unsure, try reading the scene out loud to someone else. See if they can follow the dialogue and know who’s speaking.

2. Don’t get too creative.

So many people think “said” is boring, so they try to get creative and use other words. Creativity is great, but when it comes to dialogue tags, creativity can hurt you. Think of “said” like an invisible tag. Readers basically skip over it. But using words like demanded, stated, cried, laugh, ejaculated (<–I hate that one), you are drawing attention to the tags themselves instead of letting the dialogue stand on its own. Which brings me to point #3:

3. Don’t use a tag when the dialogue can speak for itself.

You shouldn’t have to use an adverb like “she said angrily” or “she replied sarcastically.” When you use adverbs in your dialogue tag, you’re not trusting the dialogue to speak for itself. As the author, you should have written the dialogue well enough that it should sound angry or sarcastic to the reader without you adding in the adverb to tell us that character is angry or sarcastic. Of course, sometimes these words work well and should be used, but in many case I end up removing them because they aren’t necessary. (This is where a critique partner, beta reader, or editor can come in handy.)

4. Don’t use tags that don’t relate to actual speaking (see also this post)

Something I see a lot is use of words in place of “said” that aren’t physically possible in dialogue. For example:

“You can’t be serious,” I blurted.

“That’s hilarious,” I laughed.

“I can’t stop laughing,” I snorted.

None of these tags are correct, because you cannot laugh a sentence or blurt a sentence or snort a sentence. You say something THEN you laugh. You say something THEN you snort. And I wouldn’t recommend ever using the word blurt like this at all.

The proper punctuation here would be: “That’s hilarious.” I laughed. OR, you could do this: “That’s hilarious,” I said, laughing. The second use is still strange, and I recommend the first revision (I laughed with a period), but it’s at least better than the original.

5. Don’t use two dialogue tags. 

This one is similar to #1 and sounds like a ridiculous problem. And I agree! But I’ve seen things like this happen, so I want to address it:

Charlie smiled. “I’m here to work,” Charlie said.

While this isn’t technically wrong, it certainly isn’t advisable. There’s no need to double up on tags or action beats. That just adds unnecessary word count and is a great way to turn readers off to your writing.

Did I miss anything? What other “don’ts” of dialogue would you recommend?

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6 thoughts on “5 “Don’ts” for Using Dialogue Tags

  1. Pingback: 5 "Don'ts" for Using Dialogue Tags | ...

  2. I hate “he/she said” dialogue tags. It’s a line of dialogue, we know it was said, if it wansn’t said then why the hell is it in quotation marks and separated into it’s on paragraph? If he/she said doesn’t follow are we afraid that the reader is going to assume that it’s more narration, except we’re to read it as though the narrator is using air quotes while speaking it? Never once have I heard of someone looking at a line of dialog and asking what the quotes mean (well maybe if it’s their first time ever reading english and they’re a native Russian or perhaps Chinese speaker, but even then I can’t speak, read, or write Russian but I still know how to signify dialogue in the language).

    People say “he/she said” is invisible to the reader, well, with that said: I read the book Addie Pray (Paper Moon) about two months back and every single line of dialogue was followed by a “(gender) said” tag and I noticed every single one…every one. I know it was said, I know it’s a line of dialogue and that dialogue was convered by someone’s vocal chordes through their mouth using speech. It’s not my first day on planet earth.

    When I write I don’t signify the line was said, spoken, or anything…I do however tell you how it was said if it’s not necessarily going to be understood by the reader or if it absolutely needs to be denoted who said it (say 5 people in the scene).

    Example:

    “Are you sure that’s how it works?” Mark, without taking eyes off the machine in question.
    “I’ve been an auto mechanic for thirty five years, Mark, I think I should know something about engines,” Dan, taking a step back while removing black grease from his hands with what once very well could have been a white rag.
    “Yes, but it isn’t working, thjat’s why I brought it here,” Linda, hiding frustration behind what so far had been convincing disintrest.

    And so on, while allowing the tags to become shorter, and even sometimes short enough that they’re nothing more than:

    Mark: “Look Linda, he’s the best mechanis within a hundred miles, if he says it’s gonna cost eight hundred dollars to fix, then you can bet any other mecchanic would have told us twelve hundred.”
    Linda: “True.”
    Mark: “Alright, then I’ll let him know we’re leaving it with him and we can walk back to the hotel,” smiling, “…and we can get a bite to eat at that little Italian place we saw yesterday along the way.”
    Her face became a radiant smile as she released his hand.

    Much better than a whole sting of he said, she said crap!

    • …although I will agree 1 billion percent with anyone who says that “he/she” said better than “he/she ejaculated.”

      …and also, sorry for the mispellings above, lol. I’ve apparently done all the proofreading my brain can handle for the say so I spaced it off, lol (again).

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