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Dialogue Word Cloud

How to Use Dialogue Tags in Your Novel

If you write novels or plan to, sooner or later you’re going to have to write dialogue. And that means learning the correct way to use those ubiquitous little phrases called dialogue tags. These are phrases such as “she said” or “he asked” that are used to identify which character is speaking in a work of fiction.

There are many conventions that writers should be aware of when using dialogue tags in their work. We will cover them here in detail, including the following—

  • What Is Dialogue?
  • What Are Dialog Tags? 
  • How to Use Dialogue Tags and How Not to Use Them
  • Action Beats and How to Use Them
  • Where to Place Quotation Marks With Dialogue Tags
  • The Correct Way to Use Punctuation Marks With Dialogue Tags
  • How to Punctuate When the Tag Comes After the Dialogue
  • How to Punctuate When the Tag Is Placed Before the Dialogue 
  • How to Punctuate When the Tag Falls in the Middle of the Dialog 
  • How Often Dialogue Tags Should Be Used
  • How to Combine Action Beats With Dialogue Tags

What Is Dialogue?

Before we get into dialogue tags, let’s first get clear on exactly what dialogue is. Dialogue is a conversation between two or more people that takes place in a work of fiction, such as a short story, play, or novel. Dialogue is always placed between two quotation marks. Here is an example of dialogue.

“Let’s hit the beach tomorrow.”

Writers use dialogue in novels to serve a few purposes, including but not limited to—

  • To give the reader more insight into a character
  • To advance the plot
  • To break up the text in a long passage of exposition

What Are Dialogue Tags?

Dialogue tags are short phrases such as “she said” or “he asked” that are used to identify which character is speaking during a conversation. 

Suppose our eager beachgoer from above–we’ll call her Val–is talking to a couple of her friends, named Pat and Denise. Attempting to figure out who is speaking in a dialogue exchange back and forth would likely be confusing because the reader could not hear the voices or see the speakers. 

That’s where dialogue tags come in. In the following passage, dialogue tags are highlighted in boldface.

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“Let’s hit the beach tomorrow,” Val said.

“Sounds good to me,” Denise said. She turned toward Pat. “Can you make it?”

“Afraid not,” Pat said. “I have to work.”

____________

How to Use Dialogue Tags and How NOT to Use Them

The purpose of dialogue tags is to denote who is speaking. And that is their ONLY purpose. Try not to overuse tags to show the manner or style in which a character speaks. And never embellish them in a way that calls a lot of attention to them and distracts the reader.

Here is an example of an embellished dialogue tag in which the writer is trying to convey the manner of speaking through the tag.

“Don’t you dare speak to me that way,” George screamed in a loud voice. 

First, screaming is always loud and thus need not be further explained. This gets repetitive. George screamed or maybe George said in a loud voice is each adequate by itself.

Some writers would go even further with this, believing that only the dialogue tags “said” and “asked” should ever be used. They feel that it is the writer’s job to set the scene so that readers know the emotion behind the speech—fear, anger, sorrow, etc.—without being told. 

Here is an example of what I mean, using George from above.

George fixed his cold, hard eyes on her as he charged forward. He stuck his face within inches of hers and raised a tightly clenched fist in her direction. “Don’t you dare speak to me that way,” he said.

In other words, show, don’t tell, the reader about the emotion behind the dialogue. This always makes for better writing.

Something else to avoid is using words that don’t depict speech—such as sighed, smirked, or laughed—as dialogue tags. They can feel awkward and may jar the reader.

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AVOID: “You will never learn, will you?” he smirked.

BETTER: “You will never learn, will you?” he said with a smirk.

BEST: He smirked. “You will never learn, will you?”

____________

In the third sentence above, “He smirked” is used as an action beat and replaces the dialogue tag entirely. Action beats can also complement dialogue tags. Read on to learn more about using this tactic to complement or replace dialogue tags.

Action Beats and How to Use Them

Action beats, sometimes called action tags, are an alternative way of identifying the speaker. The writer uses action, usually mixed with emotion, to identify the speaker rather than actually having the character speak. 

Why use this method to denote the speaker rather than a dialogue tag? The advantage of action beats is that they can be used to show the character’s thoughts or emotions without jarring the reader because they serve as a transition or warning to the reader. They give the reader a moment—or a beat—in which to adjust. They are also useful for breaking up long passages of dialogue.

You’ve seen a couple of examples of action beats above. Here are two more examples, comparing action beats with dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags only:

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said excitedly.

“Believe it,” he smiled. “Will you marry me?”

“Oh yes,” she said, flashing a big smile.

____________

The third line above is a little better than the other two because it gives the reader a minor beat to absorb the upcoming indicator of the emotion behind the words.

Action beats only:

She covered her mouth and held her breath as he slipped the ring onto her finger. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

He smiled up at her. “Believe it. Will you marry me?”

She nodded and blinked her eyes to hold back tears. “Oh, yes!”

____________

See how the action beats guide the reader in understanding who is speaking without the use of dialogue tags? They also allow the reader more time and space to absorb the emotion behind the dialogue.

Where to Place Quotation Marks With Dialogue Tags

The closing quotation mark should be ALWAYS placed OUTSIDE of the punctuation mark. A mistake that beginning writers often make is to place the closing quotation mark before the punctuation mark. This marks a writer as an amateur.

Exceptions to this rule, such as colons and semi-colons, are rarely if ever used in fiction.

The Correct Way to Use Punctuation Marks With Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags can be placed before the dialogue, in the middle, or at the end of the dialogue. The placement is entirely up to the writer. Some prefer one method or the other almost entirely. Others like to mix things up.

The use and placement of punctuation marks will vary, however, depending on where the dialogue tag is placed.

Tag placed after the dialogue. In this case, end the dialogue with a comma, even if it’s a complete sentence. If it’s a question, end with a question mark. Always place a period after the dialogue tag. Here are a couple of examples:

“Let’s leave for the beach in about an hour,” Alice said.

“Are we going to the beach today or not?” Alice asked.

Tag placed before the dialogue. This method is used less often than the one above. When using this method, place a comma immediately after the dialogue tag. Capitalize the first letter of the dialogue if it’s a complete sentence and end with the correct punctuation mark.

Alice said, “Let’s leave for the beach in about an hour.”

Alice asked, “Do you want to go to the beach tomorrow?”

Tag placed in the middle of the dialogue. This is where things can get a little tricky. This method is used less often than the first or second method, but it can come in handy when you feel that you need it. The key difference is whether you’re placing the tag in the middle of one sentence or between two complete sentences.

If you’re placing the tag in the midst of a single sentence, use a comma after the first phrase of the sentence. Use another comma after the dialogue tag. Then use a period at the end of the second part of the dialogue. Both phrases are enclosed in quotation marks. And as usual, the ending quotation marks are placed AFTER the punctuation.

“They’re having a huge sale,” Mary said, “and it ends tomorrow.”

If you’re placing the tag between two complete sentences, use a comma after the first sentence. The period goes after the dialogue tag. Begin the second sentence with a capital letter. Finally, enclose both sentences in quotation marks.

“They’re having a huge sale tomorrow,” Mary said. “Do you want to check it out?”

Got it? This may all seem a bit much at first, but with practice, you will get used to it quickly. Write often enough, and it becomes second nature.

How Often Dialogue Tags Should Be Used

The short and best response is, as much as needed and not any more than needed. The purpose of a dialogue tag is to make it clear to the reader who is speaking. That said, you want to keep the tags as inconspicuous as possible. That means using them as little as possible.

Tags can often be used far less when only two people are speaking in a scene rather than three or more. Also, if the writer has done a good job of developing a character’s voice, dialect, or tone, the dialogue tag can more often be omitted. 

For example, say you have a scene in which one character is young, intoxicated, and using foul language. He is speaking to his 70-year-old grandmother. It could be possible to write an exchange between two such characters using few or no dialogue tags at all once the scene has been set up, purely through the skilled use of language and tone of voice.

You can read more about character development in another article here on Writer Imagine, entitled Create and Use a Character Development Worksheet

How to Combine Action Beats With Dialogue Tags

As mentioned earlier, action beats give writers the time and space to show readers what a character is feeling as she speaks, rather than outright telling the reader with a dialogue tag. Action beats can also be used to break up long passages of dialogue.

A couple of examples were provided earlier. Here is another one.

____________

“I can’t believe this is happening,” she said excitedly.

“Believe it,” he said, smiling. “Will you accept?”

“Oh yes,” she said, flashing a big smile.

____________

She covered her mouth and held her breath as he slipped the ring onto her finger. “I can’t believe this is happening.”

He smiled up at her. “Believe it. Will you accept?”

She nodded as her eyes blinked to hold back tears. She was smiling so hard she thought her lips would fall off her face. “Oh, yes.”

____________

There is nothing wrong with the first example, which uses dialogue tags appropriately to identify the speaker and tell the reader about the emotion behind the words. But notice how the action beats used in the second example SHOW the reader what the characters are feeling?

In my opinion, sticking mainly with the dialogue tags “she said” and “she asked” and occasionally combining dialogue tags with action beats is the best option.