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  • Writer's pictureWendiFournier

Full Throttle: Use Dialogue Tags Like A Pro

Updated: May 23, 2022

Dialogue tags are like the wingbeats of a hummingbird. Even though you can't see them, you know they are there. Dialogue tags work in the same manner, guiding the reader on a journey without getting in the way.


Ready to kick it into overdrive and nail dialogue tags right from the start? Jump in and buckle up. You're in for a smooth ride!



Before we can understand how to use dialogue tags seamlessly, we must first understand what they are. Dialogue tags are phrases like "he says" or "he said." They tie a line of dialogue to a character so the reader understands who is speaking and how they are delivering the dialogue. But the trick to dialogue tags is making them invisible to the reader.

Let's take a look at the following examples to better gauge great tags from, well, not so great ones.

Example 1:

Stalled Out: "What in tarnation are you doing?" Logan exclaimed.

Full Throttle: "What in tarnation are you doing?" Logan said.

Notice the difference? The word "exclaimed" in the first example is jarring, but in the second example, we don't notice the tag and our focus remains on what is important - the dialogue.

Let's punch the pedal and take a harder look at another example.

Example 2:

Stalled Out: "Leave me alone!" Tobias thundered.

"I can't do that," Lucy replied.

"Why not?" he said annoyed.

"Because I love you too much," Lucy retorted. "I'm in it for the long haul."

Full Throttle: "Leave me alone!" Tobias said.

Lucy brushed the hair from his forehead. "I can't do that."

"Why not?"

"Because I love you too much." She searches his eyes. "I'm in it for the long haul."

Better, right? In the second example, we show the reader what is unveiling rather than telling them. We'll talk more about show don't tell in an upcoming segment!

Let's take a look at a few do's and don'ts associated in today's storytelling world.

Rule #1: SAID OR SAYS ARE THE KING AND QUEEN OF VERBS

Use "said" or "says" over any other verb (most times). Why? Because this word is invisible to readers and it won't slow them down during the reading process.

But wait! What if the word "said" or "says" does not convey the meaning you're striving to achieve? In this case, try using the next simplest alternative to drive the point home like:

*he asks

*he mumbles

*he whispers.

All of those tags are a-okay to use as long as you use them sparingly and correctly, and the character is indeed asking a question, mumbling, or whispering.

Rule #2: DITCH THE ADVERBS

Not much screams "amateur" more than a manuscript chock full of adverbs. Cut them out...99.9% of the time! Don't do this:

*he says impatiently

*he says loudly

*he says stubbornly

And even more so, NEVER do this:

*he shouts impatiently

*he screams loudly (do we ever scream quietly?)

*he whispers quietly (do we ever whisper loudly?)

Ick! Not only are these words distracting, but they're also picture-perfect examples of telling, not showing. Take a look:

Stalled Out: "My cat is missing," Jaxon says sadly.

Full Throttle: "My cat is missing," Jaxon says, wiping salty streaks from his cheeks.

Every rule has its exceptions, but most often adding an adverb to tags cheats readers out of a remarkable reading experience. Show. Don't tell. Live by it.

If you find these words slipping into your writing, hit the delete button quicker than Bubba Wallace crosses the finish line!

Rule #3: NOT ALL DIALOGUE NEEDS A TAG

A tag's purpose is to clue the reader in as to who is speaking. And readers are far more intelligent than writers give them credit for. If it's obvious who is speaking, ditch the tag. However, too few tags can be as equally annoying. Take a look:

Stalled Out: "Are you going to the movies tonight?" asks Luke.

"Can't. I'm grounded," says Katie.

"Bummer," says Luke.

"Tell me about it," says Katie.

Full Throttle: "Are you going to the movies tonight, Katie?" asks Luke.

"Can't. I'm grounded."

"Bummer."

"Tell me about it."

In this example, we can get away with using only one dialogue tag because it's crystal clear who is speaking. Don't use tags just for the sake of using them.

FINAL THOUGHTS

Don't just take my word for it. Stephen King, whose famous opinion that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” is one worth taking into serious consideration.



Strike the perfect mix by using variety in your writing. While "says" and "said" are preferred, don't use them every time. Your writing will stall, and no one ever crosses the finish line with a stalled engine.

Mix it up. Trust your gut. If it sounds right, then it is! Remember, tags are most efficient when a writer seamlessly weaves them into a story without the reader ever realizing they're there!

Rev it up!

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