He said, she said: Dialogue Tags

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We are at the letter D in our series on “Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

If you’ve read the previous posts on the subject, you’ll recall that the eight of us – Devika Fernando, Preethi Venugopala, Paromita Goswami, Adite Banerjie, Ruchi Singh, Sudesna Ghosh, Saiswaroopa Iyer and I – are blogging on a myriad of writing-related topics with the topic corresponding to the Alphabet of the Week.

This week, I’m going to talk about Dialogue Tags.

If my book characters say something, how will readers know who spoke?
How will they know who said what when they can’t physically see or hear the characters?

Through dialogue tags, that’s how. Dialogue tags are phrases or sentences that tie or tag a character to a particular dialogue.

Consider this conversation (Example A):
‘What on earth are you doing?’
‘How is it any of your bloody business what I do?’
‘It is my bloody business because this is my bloody house!’

Can you tell which characters, or even how many, are involved in this conversation?
I guess not. Now let’s see how to make it amply clear who is doing the talking.

Tag 1

Modified Example A

‘What on earth are you doing?’ asked Mita.
Tanay, from his perch half-way up the ladder, glared at her. ‘How is it any of your bloody business what I do?’
‘It is my bloody business,’ Mita snapped, ‘because this is my bloody house!’

The modified example indicates clearly which character has said what.

The example also demonstrates two important facts about tags: One, that they can be of different types, and two, they can be inserted in different positions in the dialogue.

Types of dialogue tags
First, there are the straightforward tags which use the verbs ‘said’ and ‘asked’ – there are plenty of writers who use only these and no other verb in their dialogue tags.

Then, there are writers who insist that the tags must be varied to avoid boring the reader. I prefer this school of thought as you can tell from my example – thus, ‘snapped’ or ‘glared’ along with an occasional ‘asked’ or ‘said’ can be found tagging the dialogues to my characters.

The advantage of using such tags is that you can not only indicate who is speaking but also show their mood, emotions and actions. Using verbs other than ‘said’ and ‘asked’ also helps get rid of the creepy adverb, creepy because it ‘creeps’ into our writing if we’re not careful.

Thus, instead of having Mita ‘say’ something ‘angrily’, we can have her glare or snap.

Finally, actions or descriptions can completely replace tags – I enjoy using this method too. Here’s an example:

Final Cover TOFF 25%

Mita averted her gaze from the powerfully sculpted torso of a very shirtless Tanay Devkumar and focused instead on the toes of her moccasins. ‘I’ll…um…go and see about dinner. Will you be able to find your way to the kitchen?’

Placement of dialogue tags
As shown in the Modified Example, tags can be placed after the dialogue, before it, or in the middle of it.

How is one to decide this vexed issue?
Use your intuition.

Dialogue tags can happily be placed after the dialogue has been spoken; however, if the scene is focused around Mita, but it is Tanay who speaks, then it is important to draw the reader’s attention to Tanay – in that case, place the tag first and let the dialogue follow.

If the dialogue is longish, it can be broken down into two parts by inserting the tag in the middle at a natural break in the dialogue. Where you should insert it is also an intuitive decision. Speak the words out loud and see where Mita would pause to draw breath, or where you want readers to pause so that they get the full impact of the dialogue.

Be mindful of the punctuation and capitalization which can vary with the position of the tag (see Modified Example A above). Whatever you do, don’t include the tags in the quotation marks – the quotation marks should enclose only the dialogue and its punctuation.

How many tags should you use?
Every single dialogue that is uttered by every single one of your characters does not need to be tagged.

The idea of tagging is to make it easy for the reader to follow who said what.

If the dialogues are long and rambling, the reader may lose track of who is speaking, so you’d need to tag oftener. Conversely, if the dialogues are short and snappy, then you needn’t tag each one of them.

Here are some more examples from “Take One Fake Fiance”.

Example 1, where every piece of dialogue is tagged:
Mita shrugged, ‘I don’t know. Does there have to be a reason?’
Samrat pulled into the parking lot and turned to face her. ‘Is it your father, Mita? You want to go back to that time, don’t you? Are you scared that if you grow up, or get married and move away, you’ll forget him?’
Mita stiffened and the blood rushed to her face. ‘Good heavens, Sammy, of course not. This has nothing to do with Papa, and even if it does, the last thing I need is a half-baked psychoanalysis session. I’m out of here,’ and she would have run off into the throngs heading for the Ganga Talao if Samrat hadn’t grabbed her by the arm.

Example 2, with fewer tags:
It’s strange that I haven’t seen you around, Tanay,’ Mrs. Ramphul said.
I’ve been out of the country for the last two years.’
I see. And what is it that you do?’
I’m a private detective, Mrs. Ramphul.’
Oh, that must be exciting! Um, and how do you know my daughter?’

Dialogues that are realistic and engaging bring stories to life; dialogue tags, on the other hand, unless properly applied, can destroy credibility and make the story unbearable for the reader even if the dialogues are great.

To demonstrate this, let’s rewrite Example 2 with some variation:
It’s strange that I haven’t seen you around, Tanay,’ Mrs. Ramphul said.
Tanay responded at once. I’ve been out of the country for the last two years.’
I see. And what is it that you do?’ Mrs. Ramphul asked.
I’m a private detective, Mrs. Ramphul.’ Tanay explained.
Oh, that must be exciting!‘ Mrs. Ramphul gushed. ‘Um, and how do you know my daughter?’ she asked.

In this example, many of the dialogue tags are quite unnecessary if not downright annoying and distracting – especially when the characters take each other’s names as they talk. In fact, having the characters use each other’s names – occasionally, mind you – is a clever trick to avoid using tags.

To conclude:

Tag 2

Further reading:
Dialogue Tags: What Are They and How To Use Them
Dialogue words: Other words for ‘said’
How to Use Dialogue Tags Like a Pro
Getting Dialogue Right: How to Use Dialogue Tags and Action Beats

Read other posts related to Authors’ Tips – A to Z of Writing

3 thoughts on “He said, she said: Dialogue Tags

  1. Aditee

    Great post. Clarity on who’s saying what is so very important and dialogue tags definitely help with that. Chances are that if the scene is interesting and well written, readers will not mind even if you liberally use ‘said’.

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