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Sunday, January 15, 2012

He Said, She Said—Those Pesky Dialogue Tags

When it comes to dialogue tags, those identifiers that tell who said what in fiction, I’ve noticed when reading the unpublished manuscripts of new writers that the would-be authors are sometimes likely to make two different mistakes. One is using an action as a tag. For example:

You’re beautiful when you’re mad,” he grinned.

“You’re beautiful when you’re mad,” he said with a grin.
Or: He grinned. “You’re beautiful when you’re mad.”
Or: “You’re beautiful when you’re mad.” He grinned.

The second mistake is using too many dialogue tags. Admitted, admonished, advised—marveled, mused, muttered—stammered, started, suggested. Sometimes there seems to be no end to the number of words an author can come up when using dialogue tags. While a little variety can be a good thing, using too many of these words can be a distraction rather than a sign of good writing. Rather than use multitudes of creative tags, the author would be better off making the details of the narration and the dialogue itself paint a picture for the reader.

As an experiment, I pulled a book off my shelf, Dead Wrong by J.A. Jance, and turned to page 197 at random. There were four paragraphs with dialogue. The tags were “he said,” “Joanna said,” “she asked,” and “he said.”

So if you’re working on a fiction draft, take a second look at your dialogue. If you’ve been heavy-handed in your use of dialogue tags, try replacing some of them with simpler tags such as “said” and “asked.” When it’s clear who’s speaking, you can often take the tags out. As one editor told me, “The reader will never miss them.” Then if you’ve been conservative all along and you find you want to throw in an occasional muttered or mused, it’ll work.

When it comes to dialogue tags, remember: don’t use actions, and less is definitely more.


  1. So true! This would be a great column for the PWC newsletter. Maybe you could pick up where Donna left off. In your spare time, of course.

  2. Thanks, Cindi. I'm not so sure about following in Donna Scott's footsteps -- she did a great job writing her grammar column. You're welcome to use this post for the newsletter, though. And if I come up with any more ideas...

  3. "Fantastic advice, Doris," Windy said :)

  4. Thanks, Windy. Nice of you to say so. :)

  5. Action as a tag is something that gets to me sometimes but it depends on the genre how out of sorts I get. I read a lot of Chick-Lit (also what I write) and this is rampant in the category. The action tag makes the entire story more casual, as if a girlfriend is telling a story to another girlfriend. It works in that way but even then it is hard to get away with all the time. I find that I'd prefer not to have a tag at all. That the characters are so distinct I know exactly who is speaking when and don't need to be reminded but every so often.

    Great blog, Patricia Brooks shared your info with those of us in SSWW and I'm happy to be following you over here now!