He said, she said: 4 Tips on Using Dialogue Tags

Recently, my husband commented there was a section of dialogue in my current work in progress (WIP) that was hard to follow. I don’t know if this is because he tends to listen to my WIP verses reading it or not. But either way, it is an area I need to go back and consider revising.

For readers to know who is speaking, you need dialogue tags such as he said and she replied. And while they are necessary, you don’t need them every time someone speaks.

Image result for dialogue tagsI am sure we all have encountered books full of too many or too few dialogue tags. (Check my post on that topic.) Even from professionally published authors I have had to stop and count lines backwards to figure out who is saying what.

Dialogue tags should be like punctuation marks – they should be invisible, guiding the reader, but not getting in the way of the story.

Here are four tips to help you use dialogue tags like a pro.

1.)  While your high school English teacher may have encouraged you to stray from the boring “said” or “asked,” there is nothing wrong with sticking with these words. But many new authors don’t want to stick with “said” and “asked.” They search out posts like this one that show you 100 different ways to say “said.” And while there is nothing wrong with interjecting a few of these into your text, you should do so sparingly. The concern with these more frivolous choices is that the words draw the reader’s attention away from the dialogue.

Bad Example: “You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary cried.

“What now?” Edward groaned.

“No, no, no,” she muttered. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem?” Edward wondered.

Here is a writer trying to use too many fancy tags. It should be rewritten to something more like this.

“You can’t go out into the dark,” Mary said, blocking the door.

Edward groaned. “What?”

“No, no, no.” Mary shook her head with each word. “Too dangerous.”

“What is your problem, Mary?”

The second scenario allows you to focus more on the dialogue.

Now there may be times when your dialogue may not communicate the tone or emotion clearly. And there is nothing wrong with using a descriptive tag such as whispered, shrieked, muttered, grunted or boasted to help your reader understand the scene.

Example: “Leave me alone,” he muttered.

But don’t worry about using other words than “said” or “asked.” If you only use them when necessary, and the dialogue is interesting, no one will even notice them. And that is what you want.

2.)  The placement of dialogue tags and how often you use them are important – even more so if you have a lot of characters in a scene. Well-positioned tags insure your scene make sense and eliminate any reader confusion. If a reader has to backtrack a few paragraphs or pages to get the conversation straight, a writer risks the book being abandoned.

Example:  “You always do this to me, Mary,” Edward said. “You get all worked up, forbid me to do something and it turns out to be nothing.”

Bob held up his hand. “Stop it right there, Ed. You don’t need to pick on poor Mary.”

“Thanks, Bob,” Mary said flashing him a smile. “I knew I could count on you.”

“Anything for you.”

Edward rolled his eyes. “If you two are done…”

3.)  You don’t have to always use said or any other dialogue tag to indicate who is speaking. You can use action to indicate this as well as to provide information essential to understanding the character and/or some element of the scene. In the above example, Bob holding up his hand and Edward rolling his eyes are examples of this way to identify the speaker without a dialogue tag.

Or you can have the characters use each other’s names as they speak – but again, this is done sparingly.

Bad Example: “What are you doing, Bob?” Mary asked.

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

“You know she doesn’t need your help, Bob,” Edward said.

So in the above example, characters are calling each other by name but a little too often. In real life people use other people’s names sparingly (typically at the beginning or end of a conversation) and so should your characters. Here is the above example revised.

Mary glared at Bob. “What are you doing?”

“I am helping you out, Mary.”

Edward stepped in front of Mary, shielding her. “She doesn’t need your help, Bob.”

4.)  Use adverbs (such as loudly, softly and angrily) with your dialogue tags sparingly – as in almost never. Nothing points out a novice quicker than a writer who uses adverbs to tell your reader how someone spoke or even worse uses an adverb with one of the fancy alternatives to said.

Examples: she said excitedly

He exclaimed loudly (redundant)

Using an adverb is telling your reader how the dialogue was spoken instead of showing them.

Example: “I never want to see you again,” she said angrily.

But instead of telling us she is angry, show us.

“I never want to see you again,” she said, storming out the door and slamming it behind her.

Of course, as with any “rule” there are exceptions. Sometimes adding an adverb can be a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without writing longer, descriptive sentences. But keep this to a minimum.

Wrapping it Up

To summarize….

  • Unless you have a good reason, stick to the standard “he said, she said.”
  • Other simple verbs – she asked, she whispered, – are fine.
  • Fancy verbs – he bellowed, she interjected – should be avoided.
  • Use only as many dialogue tags as needed for clarity. If two people are speaking, one every three or four lines is about right. You will need more dialogue tags if you have more characters speaking in the same scene.
  • You can also use character action or calling a character by name to indicate who is speaking.
  • Never use adverbs (or at least very rarely). Instead of telling, show the reader the action.

Even though “said” is the preferred verb, if you use it every time, your dialogue will become tedious. So aim for variety. With some practice, you will learn when a dialogue tag sounds correct and appropriate. In fact, if you don’t even think about or notice the dialogue tag…you got it right!

Picking stronger words

Today’s blog topic comes from helping my son do his homework last week. One of the assignments was to replace the verbs with stronger ones.

Here is an example from his homework.

Ben got a bag of chips from the shelf.

Stronger word choice:

Ben grabbed a bag of chips from the shelf.

Yes, both sentences are very similar. But the key is that in the second example you learn how Ben got the bag. The word “grab” means to “seize something quickly.” So when I used the word “grabbed,” you know that not only did Ben get a bag of chips, but you understand how he did it.

So when picking stronger words, you are trying to choose words that give the reader more information. Instead of talking loudly, you shout. Instead of hitting hard, you wallop and instead of smile smugly, you smirk.

Take a look at this example:

Seething with anger, Sarah took the book from him. She walked out the door, closing it loudly as she left.

Stronger word choices:

Sarah snatched the book out of his hand. She stomped out the door, slamming it behind her.

The second example gives a clearer picture of what happened. You know by her actions that Sarah is either angry or annoyed.

In the second half of the first example, instead of picking a strong verb, an adverb were used. As a writer, using the occasional adverb is fine but in reality, you should aim to use strong verbs (as in the second example.) The use of a lot of adverbs shows lazy writing.

Quick grammar refresher: An adverb modifies a verb, adjective or other adverbs. They answer the question where, when, how and to what extent. You don’t have to eliminate all adverbs but if an adverb can easily be eliminated without change the meaning of the passage, then it should be removed.

Of course, though sometimes a stronger verb will work better, there are times when a simple word is fine. Characters can walk. They don’t always have to stomp, dash, hurry, shuffle, scurry or whatever.

You want to pick the best word for the scene. This doesn’t mean you need a big, fancy or unusual word. It means picking the right word to say the right thing in just the right way. It doesn’t mean rushing to a thesaurus to sprinkle your book with synonyms when a simpler word will do.

As you revise your draft, examine your word choices. You might ask yourself, “Is this really what I mean?” or “Is there a better word to convey this so my readers will understand what is happening?”  Finding words that capture your meaning and convey it to your readers is challenging. But you can tighten up your writing by making sure you are picking strong words.