On the Use of Dialogue Tags in Fiction

Many fiction writers, especially when they start out, soon develop a love/hate relationship with dialog tags (Bob said, Joe replied). We need them, but we worry they’re repetitive or worse, we use them in the wrong places. It’s hard to trust ourselves when writing dialogue. Will our reader know who’s speaking?

While critiquing the work of newer authors in writer’s groups, I often see authors who aren’t sure when or where to use dialog tags. Below are some common practices that often aren’t necessary.

  • The author uses dialog tags when we already know who is speaking (conversation rhythm).
  • The author uses synonyms for “said” (replied, argued, hissed) to avoid perceived repetition.
  • The author falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome, redescribing characters to avoid repeating a character’s name, because they’re concerned about perceived repetition.
  • The author doesn’t trust the reader to understand the speaker’s emotion.

Ultimately, while these don’t necessarily make people put down a book, they do slow down how the reader experiences the book. Tags, used too often, make even good writing denser than it needs to be.

My own use (or non-use) of dialog tags evolved dramatically as I grew as an author. If you pay attention to how established authors write, you’ll notice common patterns which weren’t apparent at first glance. This is because these patterns are invisible to readers, as the foundations of clean writing should be.

Character dialogue doesn’t need dialog tags as often as we think it does. Readers and authors alike understand a few clear rules, and authors who internalize these rules can make their dialogue crisp and efficient by trusting their readers. Once you understand these rules, your dialog will improve.

Rule 1: In a two character conversation, you only need dialog tags once.

The most basic rule of dialog. Even if this is the only rule you absorb, using it dramatically streamlines your writing. When two characters begin a conversation, readers will naturally read their lines as:

Speaker A (established by “A said”)

Speaker B (established by “B said”)

Speaker A

Speaker B

After those first two lines, readers know who is speaking without dialog tags. After you establish the conversation rhythm (who speaks first, and who speaks second) they’ve got it. No repetition needed.

Below are examples of two characters (Diego and Carter) conversing over a dinner of military rations. The first example is too dense and has unneeded tags, unneeded synonyms, and falls victim to “the burly detective” syndrome. It also doesn’t trust the reader to understand the emotions of the characters. The second example removes these issues, presenting the same scene efficiently.

Example 1 (Dense)

1              “We need more mass,” Carter said. He chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              Diego’s executive offer shook his head. “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t,” Diego assured him. “We owe them the truth.”

5              Carter scoffed. “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why,” Diego said. “I’ll lead by example.”

Example 2 (Crisp)

1              “We need more mass.” Carter chewed. They both knew what that meant.

2              Diego saw no other options. “I’ll tell the crew.”

3              “They’ll mutiny, cap.”

4              “They won’t. We owe them the truth.”

5              “At the cost of Ariadne?”

6              “I’m not feeding anyone to this ship without explaining why. I’ll lead by example.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – Removed “Carter said”. We see Carter chewing right after that, so we know he’s Speaker A.

Line 2 – No changes. This line establishes Speaker B is Diego, and provides an important plot detail.

Line 3 – Removed “Diego’s executive officer” (an attempt to avoid repeating “Carter” by redescribing him, ala “the burly detective”). We also removed “shook his head”. It is clear Carter is disagreeing with Diego from the context of the dialogue. No need to repeat, and it slows down the conversation.

Line 4 – Removed “Diego assured him”. Carter started the Convo on Line 1 (Speaker A) and Diego answered on Line 2 (Speaker B). This is Line 4, so we know this is Speaker B, Diego, because we’re following the conversation rhythm. We also know Diego is assuring Carter there won’t be a mutiny simply from the context provided by the dialog. No need to spell that out for the reader.

Line 5 – Removed “Carter scoffed”. Line 5 must be a Carter line. Also, it’s clear that Carter is questioning Diego’s statement from the context. His scoff is implied and slows down the conversation.

Line 6 – Removed “Diego said”. We know Line 6 is Diego due to conversation rhythm.

Rule 2: Use a new dialogue tag when a new character enters a conversation, or when one of the two people conversing is replaced by another character, so who is speaking remains clear.

This is a bit more complicated, but it boils down to ensuring your reader knows when a new character chimes in, and doing it as quickly as possible. “He said” is invisible. You notice it, but your readers won’t – except when they aren’t sure who is speaking. Below, examples of a multi-person conversation.

Dense
1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean.” Laster blinked. “How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty,” Laster protested.

5              “Learn to multiply,” Woo replied.

6              “Enough,” Diego interrupted, ending their argument. He held out the straws.

Crisp

1              Woo had already figured it out. Mainard looked like he was going to blow chunks, but he didn’t. Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing.

2              “But, a human … a body, I mean. How many burns do we even get?”

3              “Eight to ten,” Woo said.

4              “You said we needed thirty.”

5              “Learn to multiply.”

6              “Enough.” Diego held out the straws.

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – No change. We’re establishing that this is a scene with multiple characters: Laster, Woo, Mainard, and Diego (mentioned earlier in the story, in a line I haven’t included for brevity).

Line 2 – Removed “Laster blinked”. Laster is the last person we described in Line 1, where we said “Laster was oddly introspective about the whole thing”. Readers automatically assume Line 2 is Laster speaking, because Line 1 talked about Laster being introspective. An easy way to remove a dialog tag!

Line 3 – No change. This is Woo’s first line in the conversation, so we have to use a dialog tag to keep things clear. But we use “said” which is invisible. Woo is established as Speaker B clean and quick.

Line 4 – Removed “Laster protested”. Conversation rhythm at Line 2 established Laster as Speaker A, and Line 3 established Woo as Speaker B. This is line 4, Laster, and we know he’s protesting from context.

Line 5 – Removed “Woo replied”. Conversation rhythm establishes this as Woo, and we already know he’s replying.

Line 6 – We need a Diego tag here, since he’s a new speaker. But we don’t need “Diego interrupted, ending their argument”. That’s all clear from context. All we need is “Diego” (to name the new speaker entering the conversation) and what he does afterward… “held out the straws”.

Rule 3: Anytime you use an exclamation mark, a character is either talking very loud or shouting.

This is a fun one, because it’s such an easy way to remove dialog tags. Basically, you almost never need the words “she shouted” or “he exclaimed”. It’s clear to readers simply from the “!”. Below, an example.

We’ve established three characters, Kara, Byn, and Sera. Byn just picked Sera up, surprising Kara.

Dense

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn exclaimed. He laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shouted. She shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Crisp

1          “I caught a mermaid!” Byn laughed as he fixed Kara with playful brown eyes. “Can we keep her?”

2          “Drown me, Byn!” Kara shoved him and he stumbled back, Sera eeping as he nearly dropped her. “You put that poor girl down.”

Now, let’s highlight what improved the second version, line by line.

Line 1 – We removed “Byn exclaimed”. We know Byn’s talking loudly from the “!”.

Line 2 – We removed “Kara shouted”. We know Kara is shouting from the “!”, and it actually slows down the scene to put an unnecessary “Kara shouted” before she shoves Byn. The reader “sees” the shove happen more immediately if we get “Kara shouted” out of their way.

Wrapping Up

These rules are not absolutes. There are great reasons to not do the things these rules suggest – word rhythm, injecting humor or visuals, if the character’s emotion actually isn’t clear from the context – but if you internalize these rules, you’ll have a better understanding of when to break them.

Writing credits: For this article, I used samples from my own writing because I knew I wouldn’t sue myself over copyright. The first two examples are from “Hitting the Arch”, my submission to Fantasy-Faction’s August writing contest for “space opera”. The second is from my first book, Glyphbinder.

Utimately, everyone has their own writing style. Your writing ultimately has to “feel right” to you. But internalizing these rules is a great way to streamline your dialogue.

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One thought on “On the Use of Dialogue Tags in Fiction

  1. Pingback: Fantasy Faction Writing Contest – Space Opera | Gamewords

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