Novel Boot Camp – Lecture #17: Dialogue Tags


Dialogue tags – they’re such a tiny little thing and yet they have a huge impact on the quality, flow, and professionalism of your novel. Dialogue tags are the little bits of text that attribute the dialogue to the speaker. The most common dialogue tag is “he said.” But they can come in all sorts of shapes and sizes (many of them worse than others).

Not convinced of their importance? Think about how many of them grace the pages of your novel. All of those little buggers really add up, and they can give the impression that you’re a seasoned pro or an amateur without their sea legs.

Here’s how to master the use of dialogue tags:

Stick with the Basics

As tempting as it can be to veer off into the land of bizarre-o dialogue tags, it’s best to stick to the basics – the tried and true tags that readers don’t even notice. If you take nothing else away from this article, remember this:

Dialogue tags should be invisible.

Not like invisible ink invisible, but like seen-it-ten-thousand-times-and-don’t-even-care invisible. Dialogue tags are functional. They’re not intended to be fun or expressive or artistic. They’re like punctuation marks. Sometimes a semicolon makes more sense than a period, but you can’t just start throwing ampersands and asterisks around.

So what are the basic, invisible dialogue tags? For 95% of cases, stick to either “she said” or “he asked.” If you really absolutely have to convey the volume of the voice, an occasional “he whispered” or “she shouted” is okay.

Any other dialogue tags in your novel should be necessary for clarity. For example, you may wish to use “he lied” if the reader truly doesn’t know that a character was lying. Likewise, “he joked” might be used if it’s not clear that a character is joking. But the goal should be to make these things clear within the dialogue itself.

The dialogue tags should not be doing the heavy lifting.

Indicate Volume or Tone Upfront

If you do decide that you need to use a dialogue tag to convey volume or tone, put the dialogue tag before the text whenever possible. This allows the reader to read the dialogue with the correct tone or volume level the first time.

There is nothing more jarring than reading dialogue in a normal tone only to find out at the end of the text that the character was supposed to be screaming or whispering.

The longer the dialogue, the more important it is to indicate the volume or tone prior to the dialogue.

Dialogue Tags Only Describe the Dialogue

This is more of a punctuation mistake than anything else, but it can look unprofessional, especially when the issue is repeated throughout the manuscript.

Remember that dialogue tags only describe the dialogue. They cannot be used to describe actions. For example:

“Let’s go,” he ran down the road.  < Wrong!

“Let’s go.” He ran down the road. < Right!

Dialogue tags should also never be used to describe sounds other than dialogue. For example:

“You’re so funny,” he laughed. < Wrong!

“You’re so funny.” He laughed. < Right!

“You’re so funny,” he said, laughing. < Right!

Dialogue Tags Should Not Have Adverbs

I will admit that as far as editors go, I’m a bit more on the lenient side with adverbs than most. I might allow for one or two in a chapter if I feel that it’s the best way to convey a concept. And certain adverbs that fly below the radar I won’t necessarily mess with at all. But still, when it comes to dialogue tags, it’s best to forget about the adverbs.

Here are some examples of unneeded adverbs:

“We’re leaving,” she said decidedly. < It’s pretty clear that she’s made a decision. The adverb isn’t adding anything that isn’t already clear.

“Well why don’t I just kill myself then!” she said dramatically. < It’s pretty clear she’s being dramatic here. I don’t think anyone will question it.

“What exactly are you doing?” he said suspiciously. < Especially with context clues, no one is going to be confused about the fact that he’s suspicious.

Note that certain styles of omniscient POV might get away with using some adverbs in dialogue tags.

Use Dialogue Tags Sparingly

This is an element of dialogue tags that many aspiring writers don’t realize – you don’t have to use them. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can avoid them much of the time.

Remember that they serve a functional purpose. That purpose is to indicate to the reader who is speaking. If there is no doubt about who is speaking, then a dialogue tag isn’t needed.

For example, in a conversation with two people, after the pattern is established with the first two lines of dialogue, subsequent dialogue tags may not be necessary for a number of lines. You don’t want to go for pages without reminders of who is who, but you should be able to easily go several lines without dialogue tags.

Use Action in Place of Dialogue Tags

Another way to skip dialogue tags is to use actions, movements, gestures, facial expressions, etc. to convey who is speaking. For example:

Ash wiped sweat from his brow. “I don’t know, Amanda.”

She scrunched her mouth. “What do you mean you don’t know?”

“I mean I don’t know.”

She huffed. “Whatever.”

“Why do you always have to be that way.” Ash turned to go.

Amanda paused, bit her lip. “I’m sorry, okay?”

The scene above doesn’t have a single dialogue tag. Using action in place of dialogue tags reads quick and punchy and can add a professional touch to your writing.

Homework: Reduce and Simplify Your Dialogue Tags

Choose a chunk of your text to analyze or start at the beginning and go through as much of your novel as you have time to work through. Find your dialogue tags and work on improving them by:

  • Cutting unneeded tags.
  • Using action in place of dialogue tags where possible.
  • Cutting adverbs from dialogue tags.
  • Replacing “fancy” dialogue tags with the more standard invisible ones.

Read a few scenes with this new approach to dialogue tags and enjoy the smooth, professional feel of your novel.

Not sure you’ve got this punctuation thing down? Check out my Ultimate Guide on Punctuating Dialogue.

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Novel Boot Camp is a free online novel writing course focused on identifying and correcting problems in your novel. Learn more about Novel Boot Camp and find past (and future) posts here.

How to Punctuate Dialogue: The Ultimate Guide


The vast majority of writers make errors when punctuating the dialog in their novels.  Many writers who make these errors think they have a firm grasp on dialog punctuation.

Though it probably won’t get you rejected by an agent or editor, incorrect punctuation can put them in a very nasty mood (the last thing you want when they’re handling your precious novel).


Commas are always used with dialog tags, whether they come before or after the dialog.  For example:

“Look at the dog,” he said. [RIGHT]

He said, “Look at the dog.” [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog.” He said.  [WRONG]

He said. “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

If an exclamation point or question mark is used and the dialog tag comes after the dialog, then there should be no comma and the dialog tag should not be capitalized.  For example:

“Did you see the dog?” he asked. [RIGHT]

“Did you see the dog?” He asked. [WRONG]

Dialog Tags

Writers are often confused about what qualifies as a dialog tag.  A dialog tag is only something that references the way the words came out of the character’s mouth.  Any gestures, expressions, movements, etc. should be set apart from the dialog with a period, not connected with a comma.  For example:

8392210897_586b9ec905“Look at the dog,” he exclaimed. [RIGHT]

“Look at the dog,” he smirked. [WRONG]

“Look at the dog,” he pointed. [WRONG]

He jumped up and down, “Look at the dog.” [WRONG]

And despite what many writers seem to think, you cannot laugh or sigh dialog.

“Oh, bother,” she sighed. [WRONG]

“Oh, bother,” she said, sighing. [RIGHT]

“Look at that cute puppy,” she laughed. [WRONG]

“Look at that cute puppy.” She laughed. [RIGHT]

If the dialog tag is in the middle of a character speaking, then the dialog is not capitalized after the tag unless it starts a new sentence.  For example:

“I was thinking,” she said, “that maybe you could teach me.” [RIGHT]

“I was thinking,” she said, “That maybe you could teach me.” [WRONG]

“I love that dog,” she said. “He’s so cute.” [RIGHT]

“I love that dog,” she said, “he’s so cute.” [WRONG]

Interrupted Dialog

If the dialog is interrupted by another character speaking, use an em dash.  For example:

“It’s not fai-”

“Shut up!” he said. [RIGHT]

It’s not fai . . .”

“Shut up!” he said. [WRONG]



Trailing Dialog

If a character trails off, an ellipsis should be used.  Despite what many people think, an ellipsis is only three periods. For example:

“I just thought maybe . . .” [RIGHT]

“I just thought maybe…………” [WRONG]

Multiple Paragraphs of Dialog

If your dialog needs to run multiple paragraphs without dialog tags breaking it up, then each paragraph that is not the last paragraph should have no quotation mark at the end of it.  For example:

“My dear, sweet Love.  I love you so much that I can barely take it. You are the sun and the moon and the stars to me and you always will be.

“Unless, of course, you betray me, then I will cut off your head and put it on a stake,” he said. [RIGHT]


Make Sure the Dialog in Your Novel Makes Sense!

LandscapeWriters often create conversations between their characters that don’t make sense.  Usually this is because dialog tags and narration create so much space between what one character says and what another character responds with that it’s easy to forget what the conversation was about in the first place. This most often happens with questions.  For example:

“When do you want to eat?” Oscar asked, running his hands through his hair. He seemed distracted, probably wondering if I still wanted to eat at our usual restaurant after everything that had happened.

“Let’s eat at the burger joint,” I said.

At first read through, you may not notice that her response doesn’t answer Oscar’s question.  Sure she might have some motivation for not answering it, but in this conversation, that doesn’t seem to be the case.  And if that is the case, it’s the author’s responsibility to make that clear.

I see an issue like this one in just about every single novel I edit.  You can solve this problem easily by reading through your dialog without tags or narration. Read it like a normal, natural conversation (this is also useful for creating good flow).

“When do you want to eat?”

“Let’s eat at the burger joint.”

Now it’s easy to see that her response doesn’t make sense.

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