Dialogue Tag Misconceptions

Lately, there have been articles circulating on blogs suggesting authors shouldn’t use dialogue tags—at all. Not even one. *shakes head* As a freelance editor, I have to set the record straight. YOU NEED DIALOGUE TAGS. DO NOT ELIMINATE THEM COMPLETELY.

That being said, I need to clarify a few things about dialogue tag usage.

1. A dialogue tag is the part of the dialogue that identifies the speaker. Ex. “I love this dress,” Amy said.

In this example, “Amy said” is the dialogue tag.

2. You don’t want to use dialogue tags on every line or every time someone speaks. Often, it’s possible to follow a conversation between two characters with very few dialogue tags.

3. You can use action tags instead of dialogue tags. That way, the tag is doing double duty. It’s showing the reader who’s talking and what the character is doing, which eliminates the “talking head syndrome”.

Ex. “This is the coolest room ever.” Mathew touched the raised wallpaper and slid his toes along the velvety carpet. “I wish I had a room like this.”

In this example, “Mathew touched the raised wallpaper and slid his toes along the velvety carpet” is the action tag. It identifies the speaker while showing the reader what he’s doing.

Note: An action tag can be found before, after, or in between dialogue.

4. Never use a dialogue tag and action tag in the same paragraph. It’s redundant. If you find this in your manuscript, cut the dialogue tag because it has less value than the action tag, which reveals more about the scene, character, or plot.

Ex. Janna swam toward the edge of the pool. “The water’s nice. Why don’t you come in?” she asked.

In this example, you’d simply cut the dialogue tag “she asked”.

5. It’s best to alternate between using dialogue tags, action tags, and no tags. That will keep the writing fresh.

6. When using dialogue tags, stick to “invisible” tags such as “said” and “asked”. It’s okay to occasionally use dialogue tags that show a tone or volume to a character’s voice. Ex. whispered, shouted, yelled, and mumbled.

Note: These are considered “invisible” because readers are able to overlook the tag and not get kicked out of the story.

7. The following are NOT dialogue tags: cried, laughed, smiled, frowned, smirked, winked, sneezed, coughed, joked, teased, flirted, hissed, growled, etc. Those are actions and should be used as ACTION TAGS. If you want your character to smile, he can’t talk at the same time, so either have him talk, then smile or smile, then talk.


WRONG: He smiled, “you sure look pretty tonight.” OR He smiled, “You sure look pretty tonight.”

RIGHT: He smiled. “You sure look pretty tonight.”

WRONG: “You’re the sweetest man I’ve ever met,” she smiled and reached for his hand.

RIGHT: “You’re the sweetest man I’ve ever met.” She smiled and reached for his hand.

Note: Notice the difference in punctuation between the correct and incorrect versions of these examples.

Which dialogue tags bug you the most?

Lynnette Labelle

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4 Responses to Dialogue Tag Misconceptions

  1. Brilliant stuff LL! Just the sort of micro-finer points of correct language qualification needed to make any writing legitimate. Your explanation in dialogue and action tags is most appreciated and just the sort of help my writing may need. Also it shows you ‘sweat’ this level of writing “code” the way I do.

    Oscar Wilde once said something like “there’s no such thing as an offensive book only poorly or well written book”

  2. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Ian: Thanks. 🙂

    Lynnette Labelle

  3. Angel says:

    I’ve been wanting to improve my writing of dialog, and this entry has really helped me identify what I’m still doing wrong. I would always use the action tags like smile as dialog ones, but it does sound much better if I separate the dialog and action. Thank you for this post!

  4. Lynnette Labelle says:

    Angel: Thanks. I’m glad it helped.

    Lynnette Labelle

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