Dialogue Tags and Speaking Denotation

Photo by Aleksandra Mazur on Unsplash

He said, she said, Gary said. All of these are dialogue tags. Their purpose is letting the reader know who just said, or is about to say, a line of dialogue, which is pretty important if you want your reader to be able to imagine who’s speaking.

But there’s more to letting the reader know who’s doing the blabbering in your story than just sticking “Margaret said” after a quote. For one, you need to use dialogue tags enough that your reader knows who’s talking, but you don’t want to overuse them either.

“What are you doing?” Margaret asked.

Josh looked away. “Nothing,” he replied.

“I don’t believe you for a second,” said Margaret. “You’ve got that shifty look again.”

“I told you I’m not doing anything!” Josh said.

In the above example, we don’t need dialogue tags on the last two lines; without them, it’s still obvious who’s speaking.

“What are you doing?” Margaret asked.

Josh looked away. “Nothing,” he replied.

“I don’t believe you for a second. You’ve got that shifty look again.”

“I’m not doing anything!”

It reads better this way, doesn’t it? However, if we were to continue the conversation, we’d want to include another dialogue tag on the next line so the reader wouldn’t have to start counting lines of dialogue to figure out who’s talking.

Use your best judgment to figure out how many dialogue tags you need. When in doubt, get a friend to read your dialogue and tell you if it’s obvious who’s speaking.

Using Dialogue Tags to Convey Emotion

Another aspect of using dialogue tags well is conveying the emotion of the dialogue through them.

“What are you doing?” she asked.

“What are you doing?” she sobbed.

“What are you doing?” she yelled.

The first sentence gives us no idea how the “what are you doing?” is spoken; we would have to glean the dialogue’s emotion from context. The next two lines of dialogue, however, “sound” very different when we read them because of the “she sobbed” and “she yelled.”

So should you not use said, asked, or other undescriptive speaking verbs?

You should still use them for dialogue not spoken with strong emotion. When reading a line of dialogue with a “said” or “asked,” the default is to assume the dialogue is spoken in a level tone and “inside voice.” If your dialogue is spoken loudly, quietly, or emotionally, adjust the dialogue tag accordingly.

But don’t do this:

“We should be careful,” he said quietly.

Editors everywhere just cringed collectively. Don’t make editors cringe. Use descriptive speaking verbs, like whispered, instead of said and an adverb.

The Best Way to Use Dialogue Tags

Here’s the part where I tell you the secret to using dialogue tags like a pro. Listen closely.

Don’t use them.

You reel away in shock. “But how will I tell my readers who’s speaking?”

Describe your characters’ actions instead. What are they doing as they talk? Or what is your point-of-view character thinking and feeling?

Nathan sat at the pool’s edge and let his feet dangle into the water. “I’m worried about you.”

That’s so much better than: “I’m worried about you,” Nathan said. By showing who’s talking through describing what Nathan’s doing, readers can picture the scene more clearly. They know what Nathan’s doing as he speaks, and they know exactly where he is. Of course, we could stick a “he said” at the end of the dialogue, but that’s just unnecessary and clutters things up.

Here’s an example of using your point-of-view character’s thoughts and emotions to convey that she’s the one talking.

Nathan sat at the pool’s edge and let his feet dangle into the water. “I’m worried about you.”

I resisted the urge to scoot away from him. What right did he have to keep nosing into my life like this? “I don’t need you to worry about me.”

Of course, writing all of your dialogue like this would take time, might make your prose more flowery than you like, or could add an extra few thousand words to your novel.

To get around this, don’t use description to show who’s speaking when it’s not necessary. If it’s obvious who’s talking, and describing what the speaker is doing won’t add more value to the scene, then leave the description out.

Nathan sat at the pool’s edge and let his feet dangle into the water. “I’m worried about you.”

I resisted the urge to scoot away from him. What right did he have to keep nosing into my life like this? “I don’t need you to worry about me.”

“I think you do.”

Without using description or a dialogue tag, it’s still obvious that Nathan said that last line. Although, I might like to know what Nathan does when he says that. (Does he stare into the water, or look at the protagonist?)

Of course, you can toss in a “said” or “shouted” here and there, but when you can, use actions and your point-of-view character’s thoughts and feelings to show who’s talking.

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Sophia Uhlenhoff

Sophia is a writer of soft sci-fi and fantasy, who spends more time daydreaming about her books than actually writing them. She also enjoys procrastinating by playing Skyrim. If you see her, tell her to go write.

Currently, she's a student of creative writing at Boise State University and a Chaos Gate author at Fiction Vortex. Her dream is to live in a tree house next to a waterfall and have a pet bunny named Mr. Floofers.

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