Dialogue Tags: What Are They and How To Use Them

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Writers encounter dialogue every day, but too often recently I've seen great stories ruined by choppy, incoherent, and straight-up weird dialogue. How can you use dialogue tags effectively in your stories to produce clear dialogue that zings?

Dialogue Tags What Are They and How To Use Them

Recently we talked about why dialogue is important, along with the seven critical roles it plays in stories. If you've played with dialogue for long, you quickly come up against some of the questions of how to properly format it on the page, what tags to use, and how to keep it from feeling redundant. Let's take a closer look at dialogue tags and how to use them.

What is a Dialogue Tag?

A dialogue tag, also known as an attribution, is a small phrase either before, after, or in the middle of actual dialogue that indicates the speaker. For example:

“Did you get my letter?” asked Katie.

The phrase “asked Katie” is the dialogue tag in the sentence.

How To Use Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are found in three different places: before, after, or in the middle of dialogue. Depending on where the dialogue tags are, you use different punctuation and capitalization.

*We are using the rules for standard American English. UK English uses different punctuation rules.*

Tag Before the Dialogue

When dialogue tags are before the dialogue it looks like this:

Meghan asked, “Are you coming to my party?”

How it works:

  • Use a comma after the dialogue tag.
  • If the dialogue is the beginning of a sentence, capitalize the first letter.
  • End the dialogue with the appropriate punctuation (period, exclamation point, or question mark), but keep it INSIDE the quotation marks.

Tag After the Dialogue

When dialogue tags are used after the dialogue it looks like this:

“Are you coming to my party?” Meghan asked.

or

“Are you coming to my party?asked Meghan

How it works:

  • Punctuation still goes INSIDE quotation marks.
  • Unless the dialogue tag begins with a proper noun, it is not capitalized.
  • End the dialogue tag with appropriate punctuation.

Tag in the Middle of the Dialogue

When dialogue tags are used in the middle of dialogue it looks like this:

“The car lights,she explained,aren't bright enough to drive at night.”

How it works:

  • A comma is used before the dialogue tag and goes INSIDE quotation marks.
  • Unless the dialogue tag begins with a proper noun, it is not capitalized.
  • A comma is used after the dialogue tag, OUTSIDE of quotation marks, to reintroduce the dialogue.
  • End the dialogue with the appropriate punctuation (period, exclamation point, or question mark), but keep it INSIDE the quotation marks.

How Often Should You Use Dialogue Tags?

I came across this question recently in a writing group. How often do you need to tell the reader who is speaking? There are a few different rules to decide how often you use dialogue tags.

The most important thing to remember is:

If you are writing short dialogue, where each line is only a few words, you can use fewer dialogue tags. For example, this exchange has too many tags if there are only two people in the conversation:

“I'm trying to study,” Jen said.
“For what?” Ben asked.
“A test,” Jen answered. “Do you need something?”
“I guess not,” said Ben.

In this case the dialogue tags are almost as long as the dialogue itself, and they become unnecessary and distracting. If the characters are previously introduced, the tags aren't needed. For example:

“I'm trying to study,” Jen said.
“For what?” Ben asked.
“A test. Do you need something?”
“I guess not.”

The second example, which removes the the second set of dialogue tags, reads faster and is simpler. Simple is always better.

If you are writing with multiple (three or more) characters, use only enough dialogue tags to clearly indicate who is speaking.

If you are trying to insert action or description, you can use it as the dialogue tag. For example:

Jen looked down. “It's good to see you.”
“Yeah, you too,” Ben said, biting the inside of his lip.

Notice how you can either include the dialogue tag (“Ben said”) or just use the action itself as the dialogue tag.

The SAID Debate

There's a debate on how often to deviate from using a simple “said” to mark dialogue tags. One side argues that the only dialogue tags necessary are said and asked. (Joe is a believer in said.)

The other side, mainly composed of middle and high school English teachers around the world argue, “Said is Dead!”

Dialogue Tags What Are They and How To Use Them

The “Said Haters” argue that people do not simply say words; rather, they whisperyell, remark, argue, and so forth. They believe that using more descriptive words paints a clearer picture for the reader.

The “Pro-Said” Party believes that all the extra verbs are distracting to the reader. They believe that “said” is easily ignored, so your readers can keep their focus on the dialogue.

The best thing to do as a writer is to look at the industry standard for your genre or writing field. Make sure you notice how published writers are creating their dialogue tags, and use those as a model for your own practice. Can you deviate from those standards for a specific purpose? Of course, but know why you are doing it, and don't be surprised If it meets some resistance.

Which side are you on? Do you believe writers should only use “said” as a dialogue tag or should they vary their dialogue tag word choice? Let us know in the comments.

PRACTICE

For fifteen minutes, practice writing dialogue and follow the rules above. Experiment with said, and with placing dialogue tags in different spots. Be creative!

Once you finish, post your practice in the practice box below and leave feedback for other writers.

Enter your practice here:

Kellie McGann is the founder of Write a Better Book . She partners with leaders to help tell their stories in book form.

On the weekends, she writes poetry and prose.

She contributes to The Write Practice every other Wednesday.

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153 Comments

  1. Joseph M

    I do think we should use some variation, but I prefer simple words, such as said, asked, whispered, yelled, etc. I find longer, more complicated words more distracting, so I only use other words when said isn’t clear enough, such as when a person is whispering and shouting. I also occasionally use informed, repeated, and a few others.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Joseph, Sounds like a good rule to keep in mind. Simplicity is key.

      Reply
    • David H. Safford

      ^ Agree. From an English teacher, and author. Totally agree ^

      Reply
    • Claudia

      Stick to said. It’s an attribution that generally doesn’t even register in a reader’s mind.

      Reply
      • Karen B

        It does with me! I always notice when a writer repeats said too many times.

        Reply
        • JColling

          I agree with Karen. I too can tell when “said” is overly used. You dont really notice it though (at least at first), like Claudia said (there it is again, lol) – until the writer uses it too much, etc. – like in my post, here! 😀

          Reply
        • Andressa Andrade

          Same with me. That’s why I think some variation can be nice.

          Reply
        • Alana Morris

          I said that said is said too much. 🙂 Seriously, the reason English teachers coach students (often novice writers, many of whom are still learning the language) to avoid overusing said it because many do not yet have the fluency of strengthening the conversation with other conventions for imagery, etc. By nudging students toward other choices for saying said, it provides a means to assist with imagery through more specific language, which is an incredibly important skill. Additionally, many master writers use these tag lines to build character motivations and traits. It goes far beyond preference of word choice. Ezra Jack Keats in Peter’s Chair, illustrates for readers of all ages how Peter is gradually becoming more anxious over his blue baby items being painted pink. The tag lines go from “he thought” to “he whispered” and then from “he muttered” to “he shouted.” Teachers are not just coaching students toward writing skills, they are also helping readers analyze the purpose and intent of the decisions made by the writer to develop characters and build tension regarding the trouble (Mem Fox) in the story in order to better understand the story. At the end of the day, this conversation boils down to how knowledgeable, experienced, and flexible the writer is regarding using tag lines for multiple purposes as part of their craft.

          Reply
      • EmFairley

        For me said registers unpleasantly every time. I would much rather know how the words were spoken

        Reply
    • JColling

      I believe that there is a place for “said” just as much as “yell” , or any other variation. It really depends on what is happening in your story at the time, etc. – I dont believe it would be a good idea to only use “said” or to never use “said”. The word “said” as well as other expressions have their place – its up to us as writers to decide when and where that place is in our own stories, and then use whichever expressionary word the current dialogue calls for. 😀

      Reply
      • Gary Fields

        If simple tags don’t work, try using none. Clever tags are distracting and amateur. I only need to know who is speaking, not how many words the author knows. Speaking of which, expressionary is not even a word. Way to ruin your own credibility.

        Reply
        • JColling

          The only credibility ruined here, is yours. Do you always end a comment towards another person (whom you’ve never met) with an arrogant comment? You must have many good friends……

          If you don’t like my opinion (which is a month old), which was directed towards the article in general, then click your browser off. You have accomplished absolutely nothing by saying to me, “Way to ruin your own credibility.”….

          …Other than proving to myself and others that you have a failing grade in internet etiquette. But I digress, because that’s what kids do. Go look up the meaning of “self-control” and “restraint” – you need it. Your parent’s obviously never taught you good manners.

          Reply
          • Larry Cashman

            Why are you starting a sentence with the word “but”?

          • Larry C

            You also put an apostrophe where there shouldn’t be one. Your parent’s obviously never taught you good manners. The word parents did not need an apostrophe.

  2. EmFairley

    My writing now includes a lot of dialog and I’m happy to say that I follow these rules with one exception. That being that if the tag in the middle is very long, I capitalize the first word within the second set of quotation marks, because it’s almost as if it’s a new piece of speech. Regards the said debate, I prefer to use more descriptive tags, when necessary, than just a rather simple and in my opinion nondescript said

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      That’s a great point about the middle dialogue tag! Thanks EmFairley.

      Reply
      • EmFairley

        Thanks Kellie! Another point is to keep the tags to a minimum if the conversation is only between two characters, as in my current work, except where descriptive tags are needed to denote change of tone or an action. I do occasionally use ‘he replied’, just to keep the reader on track. Hopefully, they will have become familiar with each character’s voice and will know who is speaking, but a subtle reminder is useful, and I find replied more subtle than said

        Reply
  3. Gary G Little

    “What the hell?” the curmudgeon grumbled.

    “I lost all my dialogue,” he mumbled.

    “Damn stupid software update in the middle of writing the practice,” followed by several expletives deleted.

    “Crap, I thought it was updating from Yosemite to El Capitan,” the curmudgeon continued.

    “But nooo. It updated Safari, and of course Safari can’t be open when it get’s updated so all that award winning dialogue get’s deleted when Safari closes.”

    “Ha! Award winning? That’s a laugh,” exclaimed Amuse braying like a jackass.

    “Hey, it’s deleted so maybe it was award winning dialogue,” affirms Muse.

    “Yeah, like this old fart could write award winning anything,” interjected Amuse.

    “Hey, give Gary credit. He does keep trying.”

    “Oh yeah, he’s very trying, so trying he makes me tired,” Amuse fanes a yawn and stretch.

    “If you don’t shut up I’m gonna deck you,” Muse threatens.

    “Oh yeah, you and whose army?”

    “Me and my army you little sh…” and Muse pounces on Amuse, resulting in both of them tumbling and rolling around Gary’s shoulders.

    “Hey!” Interjected Gary. “Both of ya cool it. I gotta submit this before I lose it again.”

    Reply
    • Jeanne Felfe

      Sorry, but I found this to be a bit confusing and overly tagged. Is Gary the curmudgeon or some other character like Muse and Amuse? I think the 1st 5 lines should all be in a single paragraph… NMHO. 🙂

      Reply
      • Gary G Little

        The over-tagging was deliberate, as well as the failure to use “said”, anywhere. I’m spider, but wanted to try not using said. Thanks for the comment. Muse and Amuse are my personal muse and anti-muse, who continually do battle.

        Reply
        • Jeanne Felfe

          I actually wondered if it was deliberate. I love that you have both a Muse and an Anti-muse.

          Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Great practice Gary.
      Did this really happen? I really enjoy the names you give your characters. I think since I’ve seen your writing for a while now I was better able to understand it. You have a unique prose and style.
      Great job.

      Reply
      • Gary G Little

        Yes it really did. I was all set to hit submit on an entirely different tact, when the dialogue popped up to upgrade. I thought I going from Yosemite to El Capitan, the OSes for a Mac, and knew it would take minutes to load, so I hit “do’od it”, and immediately lost Safari, because it was a Safari upgrade. This then was the result.

        Reply
    • Lauren Timmins

      I love the banter between Muse and Amuse. Their colorful character really shines through the dialogue.

      Reply
  4. aGuyWhoTypes

    I like the descriptive tags better.
    I was attending my writer’s club during reading day. (we alternate between work days and readings days every Sunday at our local coffee house.)
    One of the younger readers read a story where he used descriptive tags and I loved his story. It felt very clear and I knew exactly how he intended each character to sound. I thought it was a great story and have been wanting to use them in my own writing but I’m always afraid of writing something “wrong.”

    Reply
    • Jean Maples

      Descriptive tags, you have to use. Great that you can be in a writer’s club.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Everyone’s style is different, and I think you can be successful doing both. As long as it’s not super complicated and hard to read, descriptive tags can be a lot of fun.
      Don’t be afraid of writing something “wrong”. That will keep you from writing anything.

      Reply
  5. Jean Maples

    Joe entered the room. He knew instantly that something bad had happened.
    “What’s wrong?Why’s everyone so gloomy?” he inquired.
    Suzie, his wife, head down, answered, “Becky is dead.”
    He looked around at the seated women. His sisters nodded.
    “She was hit by a car!” said Delores.
    “You’re sure she’s dead?”
    “Of course we’re sure,” replied Mary, his other sister, “the doctor declared her dead an hour ago.”
    “Where did it happen?” he asked.
    “In front of the house,” responded Suzie, between her tears.
    “Weren’t you supposed to be watching her?”
    “I was watching her. She darted into the street when she saw Mary after she’d gotten off the bus. I couldn’t save her.”
    “It’s a mother’s duty to keep her child safe!” bellowed Joe.
    He burst into tears and collapsed.

    Reply
    • Jeanne Felfe

      I would agree with all of the above except “bellowed” – I think it would be stronger to simply use the “He burst…” as an action tag and skip the dialogue tag completely.

      Reply
      • Jean Maples

        Thank you.

        Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Jean,
      This is definitely some intense dialogue. Great examples and your dialogue tags look good.
      I’d love to see more action or description as well. It seems like the whole situation would be incredibly tense and I don’t get that strong feeling until the end.
      Great job Jean!

      Reply
  6. LaCresha Lawson

    I needed to read about this very thing. I definitely use the “dialogue tag” in my writing but sometimes I don’t feel like using it and will write, “he said and she said,” with no dialogue tag used. Does that make sense? Please correct if I am wrong. Thanks.

    Reply
    • juanita couch

      This article was what I needed also. I especially needed the punctuation part.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      LaCresha,
      “He said” and “She said” are dialogue tags themselves. You’re using dialogue tags without knowing it.
      Does that answer your question?

      Reply
      • LaCresha Lawson

        Good morning! And, thank you for your response. Ooops, I don’t think I made myself clear. Instead of using the dialogue tags when writing I will simply write, for example, well, he said that he didn’t need to go home. Instead of, “I said I didn’t need to go home.” So, I think I was writing in second person to keep from using quotation marks. I hope that was stated more clearly.

        Reply
      • LaCresha Lawson

        I meant in ” 3rd person.”

        Reply
  7. Andrea Huelsenbeck

    I am in favor of the descriptive tag, especially if it reveals something about the character or the situation. I agree that a poorly chosen tag is a distraction. However, using “said” when your characters are hiding from a gun-toting assailant whose position is unknown seems risky to me. Your characters had better be whispering.

    Reply
    • juanita couch

      I agree with your last two sentences. There definitely are places when you need to use a more descriptive dialogue tag.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Interesting point Andrea!

      Reply
  8. Lauren Timmins

    “I do not understand how a three year old can do all of this!” Marie shouted, gesturing at the crayon-scarred walls of the living room.
    “Marie, honey, what is this. I’m not there, I can’t see this.”
    “Greg, let me break it down for you. There is crayon all over the walls. Mason managed to climb on TOP OF THE SOFA and color the ENTIRE trim blue. There is marker all over the kitchen floor, and he broke a lamp.”
    “Marie,” Greg began, knowing he was about to venture into dangerous territory, “why was he able to do that?”
    Marie quietly put Greg on speaker. “Greg, are you trying to ask why I wasn’t watching him?”
    A cough followed by shuffling feet answered her.
    “I WAS GONE FOR FIVE, Greg, FIVE MINUTES! You get to go off to work, come home to a nice warm dinner, watch a T.V. show, and go to bed. You know what I get to do? I get to clean up spit, poop, food, do laundry, vacuum. I cant even go to the bathroom in peace! I told you, five minutes is all it took for him to do-”
    “Marie.”
    “- all of that, and now I have to clean it all up, and you’re at this conference-”
    “Marie.”
    “- I don’t think I can go another day alone with him. What?”
    “I’m coming home. I’m picking up ice cream, magic erasers, paper towels, and the biggest bottle of wine I can find. I’ll help you get the house in order, and then you can take a bath while I have some one-on-one with Mason. Okay?”
    Marie sighed and sat down. “Okay.”

    Reply
    • Gary G Little

      Well done. I don’t think you need the exclamation point and the shouted tag however. One kind of implies the other, and “Marie gestured” carries the meaning well.

      Ah, the frustration of parenthood. I managed to skip daddy go straight to granpa, when we could send them home. 🙂

      Reply
      • Kenneth M. Harris

        Gary, I do agree with some of the exclamation points. I does that a lot myself and I’m trying to pay more attention by reading aloud as you mentioned to me. Lauren, this is great. I am able to know who is speaking. Thanks KEn

        Reply
    • Reagan Colbert

      I like this and admire how you can take a simple, everyday situation and turn it into interesting dialogue. The only thing I’d suggest is to make it apparent early on that he’s over the phone. It’s a little unclear whether he’s over the phone, in another room, or just won’t get up to see, until pretty far into the scene.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      That’s very good dialogue! I like the limited use of dialogue tags. Definitely helps me read it faster. You might be able to even exchange some of the names towards the middle/in to simply “she” or “he”.

      Reply
    • LilianGardner

      Hi Lauren,
      I like your dialogue but I don’t understand that little dash.

      Reply
      • Lauren Timmins

        I’m not sure how to do it, but it’s where her speech is cut off and picking up again after Greg interrupts her.

        Reply
        • Malaena Medford

          That is an em dash, and in Word is putting two hyphens after a word, then typing the next word. I found that when it’s next to a quotation mark, it skews the quotes to go the other direction, so I type a letter then quotes and hit space or enter, this gives me the proper punctuation. Ex. vvv

          >> ” … I told you, five minutes is all it took for him to do–”
          “Marie.”
          “–all of that, and now I have to clean it all up, and you’re at this conference–”
          “Marie.”
          “–I don’t think I can go another day alone with him. What?” <<

          Em dashes also need to be in the quotes where the person is interrupting, but I think in a fiction, the rule can be bent a little to improve flow of the dialogue.

          I highly suggest the book "Punctuate It Right", which can be found on Amazon for cheap.

          Reply
        • EmFairley

          I would use an ellipsis … instead of an em dash

          Reply
  9. Dennis Fleming

    I’m a “said” person with exception and that is when too much text would get in the way otherwise, one might use a more descriptive tag.

    Reply
  10. manilamac

    I generally favor said-&-asked…especially in the book I’m writing now (my characters lie *a lot* so there’s plenty of 3rd person omniscient counter dialog). But I use descriptive tags w/o a 2nd thought to clarify & animate quick exchanges. From tonight’s work:

    “So the cops shot your old pal Tito last night…big shootout, I hear.”
    “Tito?” Tito was in jail. Bugadoy had visited him more than once when he went to see Jun. And Tito was unlikely to be out on the loose without Jun.
    “One of the cops lives around here—was talking about it this morning. Big shootout!”
    “Where?”
    “Cavite, somewhere…” The barber was always like this—last minute topics—make you pull more out of him right at the time he was brushing you off and working the last of the whiteness of the talc into your smooth, dry skin. Bugadoy wanted to punch him.
    “Big shootout?” he asked instead. “Who else—is Tito in a gang—working for the Sangleys?”
    “Don’t know,” he untied the barber’s bib and snapped it to one side a couple of times to clear the trimmings. “They’re still sorting it all out—was supposed to just be a raid—turned out more like a war, the guy said.”
    The barber, having finished his closing remarks, awaited his reward—in money and maybe in shocked response—but all Bugadoy gave him was money.

    “Psst, psst!” Two quick, urgent hisses—two cat-spits from a dark hollow. Bugadoy didn’t break stride, but tensed. “Psst!” Again, from behind him, the street call of the shady character. Turning to face, he saw it was Nandy, from the Strong Arm yard—Jun’s caretaker.
    Looking away, he marched ahead to his Pajero and unlocked the passenger door before turning back to the ragged-looking little man. “Get in,” he said, swinging the door open and striding around to the driver’s side.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Very intriguing dialogue here! Does a great job of drawing me into the story. There’s a lot of action in here which does a great job bringing the reader along.

      Reply
  11. Alicia

    Personally I don’t like using said at all or asked or any ‘tag’. I prefer to use actions before after in between dialog to indicate who is talking.
    ****
    A knock came at the door I’d left open. A familiar voice called out, “Nox, you here?”

    I smiled to myself, and my heart started to race. I shouted from the bathroom. “Yeah, come on in to the disaster area.”

    Dorian walked in and stood in the doorway to the bathroom and leaned against the frame. He watched me as I finished folding the towels and put them in the linen closet. “Seems my room was searched rather throughly.”

    Dorian gave me a sympathetic yet strained smile, “Mine wasn’t nearly so bad. But then again I’m certain that I was treated rather kindly due to the circumstances.”

    I frowned but when I looked up to see Dorian’s face he was still putting on a feigned smile. But the smile quickly faded and left small lines of worry that etched into his beautiful face. Death among the Venatori was not uncommon, but this was a tragedy.

    I grinned at Dorian trying to lighten the mood as I leaned against the bathroom door, it gave a little under my weight and I had to shift my feet ungraceful like. “I’m sure they were down right nice to you.”

    I waved Dorian into the studio proper. There was no point standing in the bathroom, where my mind was wandering to various things I’d like to be doing. Things I rapidly pushed from my mind. “I’m starving. I need to go get something to eat. If you don’t mind coming with, we can talk on the way over, over dinner and find someplace to finish talking about what I see.”

    Dorian nodded, “I think that will work. I know a nice little place, if you don’t mind.”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Alicia, this is very interesting, I love all of the visuals you give. Keep up the good work!

      Reply
  12. Reagan Colbert

    I spend most of my writing avoiding ‘he said/ she asked’, but sometimes you can’t escape them. The example below is from my WIP:
    Corrine sat gazing out the window, “What ever happened to that doctor you told me about?”
    She turned back to Corrine, “What, from BMC?”
    “Yeah.”
    “Dr. McCarthy,” Again she saw his face, every detail. She heard his voice as he claimed God was cruel. For some reason she could remember it all.
    “I don’t know,” she said finally, “He left, and I was released the next day. I don’t know where he is. I barely know who he is.”
    Corrine cocked her head, “So you never tried to figure it out?”
    Alyssa shook her head.
    “What exactly did he say to you the last time you saw him?” Corrine leaned forward.
    Alyssa shrugged, “That God was cruel, and He took people’s lives. I think there was something else going on in him besides what he let on.”
    “Probably,” Corrine smiled, “Well, meybe you affected him. Maybe he’ll come to
    the Lord because of what you said,”
    “I don’t know,” she shook her head, “The way he was talking… Well, it would have been different if he was an athiest, but he does believe in God. And he hates Him.”
    “I can’t understand that.”
    “Me neither,” Alyssa sighed, “I just wish I’d had the chance to say more. It was only a couple of minutes, and I don’t think my words could have impacted him enough for him to change.”
    Corrine leaned back in her chair and stared at her, “Well, you forget that they’re not your words,” she turned to her and grinned, “And who knows? Maybe that’s one of the ‘things not seen’ you’re always talking about.”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Reagan,
      This is a great conversation. Your punctuation and dialogue tags look great. You might even try using fewer tags and see if that still works.
      Great job!

      Reply
      • Reagan Colbert

        Thanks, Kellie! This is one of the things I always struggled with. This is part of my novel, the final draft I’ll be sending to print soon, so I am so relieved to know I’m doing it right! Glad you liked it, and thanks for the post!

        Reply
  13. Kenneth M. Harris

    I’m so glad about this particular prompt because I submitted my short story in the workshop about a couple of weeks ago. I have Gary and MC to thank for critiquing that story for me. (somebody once did it for me). I have sense a while corrected some of the errors that Gary had pointed out. Now, this prompt touch on some of the same critique. I have tried not to use She said. Said Betty. I had gotten use to the introduction of the characters and when they speak, I assumed that the reader would know who was and was not speaking. However, I do believe in variation and I might try to use that a little more.

    This is an example, Two people talking.
    Zachary leaned on the wall with his arms folded.
    “If you were going to dump me, why didn’t you just….just…”
    Julie exhaled, “Zachary, I can’t believe that you didn’t see this coming.”
    “Julie, Let me finish what I am trying to say!” He sat down next to her.
    “You’re interrupting me. You never give me a chance to say anything.”
    They grew quiet.
    “I’m sorry, Zach. I wasn’t aware that I did that.”

    Should I have said. Julie said,, “I’m sorry.” etc. Either way, I still learned a lot from this prompt. Maybe I should say I hope that I learned. Thank you all KEN

    Now, I might not have done this correctly, but I wanted show that Julie interrupted.

    Reply
    • Gary G Little

      My rule is to use tags, and mostly I use “said”, to clarify whose talking. In that case, you use Zach in Julie’s sentence, so in my opinion the tag would not be needed.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Kenneth,
      You were definitely successful in showing that she kept interrupting him. I think it’s also because your character repeated that a few times. I often like interrupted dialogue like:
      “If you were going to dump me, why didn’t you just….just—”
      “Zachary, I can’t believe that you didn’t see this coming.” Julie exhaled.

      I think the dash often shows without telling that the person was interrupted. Great job here though!

      Reply
  14. A Cooper

    I try to stick with “said”, mostly, and substitute body language that will express how the person is feeling. For example:

    Ben slammed his fist on the table. “Carol, don’t ignore me!”

    But I’m not entirely against using a dialogue tag that describes the emotion if the situation warrants it.
    🙂

    Reply
    • David H. Safford

      Using body language in place of tags seems to create such rich moments! Great example with Ben slamming his fist.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      A Cooper,
      That sounds like a good way to express how someone is feeling! I think the dialogue tags really depends on the tone as well.
      Great example.

      Reply
      • A Cooper

        Thanks. I’m learning a lot from other very generous writers, such as the folks here at thewritepractice!

        Reply
  15. juanita couch

    I have used all three examples. I find in short dialogues it can be boring to read “said” all of the time. I also believe that using other dialogue tags can make the conversation more interesting.
    Examples:
    “What is your interest in this matter?” Tom asked.
    Helen said, “You are welcome.”
    “I think your answer is not entirely right,” the instructor explained, “Do you know where the mistake is?”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Juanita,
      It’s definitely fine to switch it up. I think it depends on the style and tone you are using in your writing as well.
      Great examples.

      Reply
  16. Naked Poet

    Kellie, you messed up with your quotation:

    “The car lights,” she explained, “aren’t bright enough to drive at night.“

    You put a beginning quotation where there should have been an ending one.

    I am disappointed in you.

    Now let’s get creepy

    Kellie, tonight I will be a sunflower field. Let yourself inside of me.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      It’s an auto-formatting issue. Thanks for pointing that out, don’t worry, we fixed it.

      Reply
      • Naked Poet

        What a response! Such professionalism! But i thought we were amongst friends here. Girl, you could have told me to f off, i wouldn’t have cared. But the kindness is appreciated Kellie Kellie. What a name! Kellie Kellie. You must love that name! What a woman! Wild woman you are kellie! Wild as a chimpanzee.

        Reply
  17. David H. Safford

    I love dialogue. LOVE IT. Of course, my upcoming novel, COFFEE BAR, started out as a play, so it all began with dialogue….

    “What’s so bad about your job?” I ask.
    “You don’t understand,” Sully says, waving his free hand. “Yesterday, my boss told me to fire his secretary.”
    “So?”
    “It’s horrible,” he whines.
    “It is?”
    “Yes!”
    His voice cracks and two of the cafe patrons turn and give him that “Is-this-guy-a-serial-killer” look.
    “Okay,” I say in a hush, “it’s horrible. Tell me why.”
    “I know it’s childish and stupid – but that’s how life is sometimes. Right?”
    “Right.”
    “So yesterday, my boss hands me termination paperwork for his secretary. But I can’t do it.”
    “Why not?”
    “She likes me,” he proudly declares.
    “She likes you?”
    “Yes.”
    “How do you know?”
    “I know.”
    “How?”
    He shrinks, if only a little. “It’s childish.”
    I snatch his mug of decaf. “Spill the beans or I’m dumping this out.”
    His face screws up in surprise. “What?”
    “Tell me, Sully!” I say, holding his cup precariously in the air. “I am not a patient man!”
    “Okay, fine!” he cries. “She complimented my tie!”
    “That’s it?”
    “Yes! Now give it back!”
    I parachute the mug back into his pasty hands. “What kind of tie was it?”
    His eyes flit about, leaping with anxiety. “I don’t know – it was gold, with flecks of silver and brown and a swirly pattern – it was a tie, okay?”

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Ha, “”Is-this-guy-a-serial-killer” look. I know that look, great description!
      This is such an interesting encounter, the dialogue suggests that these two know each other well. I like how playful it is.
      Great job!

      Reply
      • David H. Safford

        Thanks! I feel that the best stories are born in the dialogue between characters. If conflict isn’t coming from character relationships, then it probably isn’t authentic.

        Reply
  18. A Cooper

    A great resource I stumbled upon with regard to dialogue is The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi. Very helpful.

    Reply
  19. Kieran Meyer

    This is something I struggled with when I first started writing. I love dialogue, but my readers got confused over who said what at times, plus some of the finer grammatical points still escape me. Thanks Kellie!

    “Dude, are you sure about this?” I asked.
    Sal shrugged. “Yeah, I checked the map. It’s the trail to the north.”
    “Alrighty then,” I said, “I hope you know what you’re doing.”
    “Please. I’ve been hiking way longer than you, I can read a map.” She started to hike, saying “Oh, and don’t call me ‘dude’. I’m not one of your bros.”
    “Yeah, sure.” I pull out a Clif Bar and open the wrapper. “You get out here often?”
    “Not this park, no, but my Dad got me involved in Scouts when I was pretty young. I’ve hiked a lot.”
    “I thought Girl Scouts just sold cookies.” I bit into the Clif Bar, peanut butter and chocolate saturating my taste buds.
    “Not Girl Scouts, Venturing.”
    I swallowed and asked, “What’s that?”
    “It’s a part of Boy Scouts. They’re co-ed and they do more high adventure stuff. Backpacking, rafting, that sort of thing.”
    “Hah! What kind of girl joins Boy Scouts?” I took another bite.
    She stopped at the first switchback. “The kind that can whoop your butt on these trails.”
    I shook my head. “Please.”
    She punched my arm. “You wanna bet? First one to the peak decides what we do for dinner.”
    I smiled. “I didn’t realize we were doing dinner. I’ll take that bet.”
    Sal opens her water bottle and takes a sip. “You want any before we start? I know you’re out.”
    “Nah, I’m good.”
    “Hey, I’ve got a question for you.” She said, taking a sip of water.
    “Shoot.”
    “You’re the biggest bro I’ve ever met. Partying hard every chance you get, I see you at the gym whenever I’m there, and don’t forget about those polos and Sperrys.”
    “So?”
    “So why’d you ask me out? I’m totally not your type.”
    I shrugged. “I don’t know, I…why’d you say yes? I’m definitely not your type either.”
    Sal shrugged. “I don’t know. Let’s talk about it at Freddie’s tonight. Best barbecue in town.”

    “Freddie’s? No way, I’ll make way better barbecue.”
    “You can not be a good cook. Now I’ve gotta win.” She sprinted up the trail.
    “I’ll make the best damn ribs you’ve ever had!” I shouted, hot on her heels.

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      Cheers, Kieran!
      I thoroughly enjoyed you dialogue. I love dialogue, too, and could read an entire story with just dialogue.
      I would put an ‘and’ in the sentence; ‘I’ve been hiking longer than you (and) I can read a map.

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Kieran, I know what you mean, I was desperate to figure out these rules!
      Your dialogue is good and tells an interesting story.

      The only thing you have to be careful about, (and I do too) is to watch your tenses. You have some present and some past tenses throughout the dialogue. It’s often better to stick with one. (You have mostly past, just a few present tenses)

      Present: Sal opens her water bottle and takes a sip.
      Past: She punched my arm.

      Great job, can’t wait to see more of your writing!

      Reply
  20. Louise Lilley

    I like as few tags as possible. Rather than being told someone shouted something or argued something, I’d prefer that the writer describes the character’s body language. I think this is much more descriptive than simply replacing said:

    ‘I don’t care,’ Bill shouted.
    ‘I’m not talking about this anymore,’ argued Sharon.

    vs.

    Bill slammed his palm on the table. ‘I don’t care!’
    Sharon didn’t flinch this time, her body was too rigid for that. She lifted her chin. ‘I’m not talking about this anymore.’

    Also, I think writers need to be careful when using action in a dialogue tag. Some things you can’t do at the same time as talking, such as biting the inside of your lip!

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Louise, these are great points. Great examples as well!

      Reply
      • kriller

        wratvsrtd sertnbsrtyns rtynsrt bertbesrtvwaerva erbtsryn5d67rmn567jn67nthnbs rtgerstv sert besrtbsert nseytn456n4esrtnbserbter

        Reply
    • LilianGardner

      Thanks Louise. I like the second way in which you show action with dialogue.
      I’ll try it when I wwrite part of my story today.

      Reply
    • Verone Travis

      She nodded her head in agreement. “Fewer dialogue tags and more action just reads better.”

      Reply
      • EmFairley

        ‘In agreement’ is redundant and unnecessary. Why else would she be nodding?

        Reply
        • Bobby Azarian

          This point is interesting to me. Yes, it is redundant, but it also reflects the way good storytellers sometimes speak. Complete concision is extremely important in academic writing, and I’d say very important in fiction writing, but I think there will always be exceptions. You don’t want to sound like an efficient robot. Sometimes an adverb or a clarification helps give it a human feel.

          Reply
        • Laura Morley

          By that token, “unnecessary” is redundant to “redundant”. Neither case is a cardinal sin.

          Reply
          • EmFairley

            Good catch!

    • Andressa Andrade

      That’s what I generally do when I am writing dialogue. I prefer that when I’m reading, too. I think it adds a lot more emotion to the scene.

      Reply
    • shareallicu

      Louise Lilley, I didn’t realize I liked less tags and more action until I read your examples! I felt like I was in the room with Bill and Sharon with the second examples compared to the first example where I felt like I was just reading words 🙂 thanks!

      Reply
    • dgdry etn

      fhfgh srt

      Reply
  21. McFrackin McFrack

    Newbie here, late to the party, but here is my go at it.

    Jenna glided the milkshake up to her quivering lips, “how long do you think you’ll be gone?”
    Mark tried his best at sounding brave, “It will be like I was never missing in the first place, by the time I get back,” his now shaking, ” You’ll almost be due then we’ll be able to start our family together.”

    Did I get that right?

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      McFrakin,
      Good job with punctuation inside of the quotation marks, and descriptive dialogue tags. There are just a few things we need to look at:

      In the first sentence, you need to capitalize the H in “how” because it is a complete sentence.

      In the second sentence, the dialogue tag is “his now shaking”. Do you mean his hands? Voice?

      Also the “you’ll” doesn’t need to be capitalized because it is part of the previous sentence.

      Great start!

      Reply
    • Jeanne Felfe

      From my perspective, yes, as far as action tags go. You might consider showing us what “tried his best at sounding brave” looks like, as you did with Jenna in the line above. You didn’t need to tell us she was nervous, her actions showed us.

      Reply
  22. S.M. Sierra

    What about says instead of said? “Pick up the phone, Dad, oh please!” Martha says as she watches the ambulance drive away with her mother.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      S.M. Sierra, I think it just depends on the tense you’re using. If you’re using present tense, then you can use “says” for sure. Just make you’re keeping the tenses consistent. (I’m really bad at that.)

      Reply
  23. gordon gange

    I agree very much about variation. I tend to use my ear a lot when I’m writing, and find rhythm very important. I like to keep to ‘said’, or asked’, and keep as few of those. I do use actions a lot, or a sentence such as ‘Toby was unimpressed: “…”‘ I like to bear in mind about words like ‘shouted’, that you should be able to tell from the character of the dialogue that it was shouted–again, if you’ve really ‘heard’ the shouting, so should the reader without being told. I’ve just read a bit further down the discussion, and I love the warning about ‘said, as he bit his lower lip.’ It reminds me of another warning I read once about using tags like. “No,” he hissed.

    Reply
  24. GloomyMermaid

    “You really don’t have to do this.” Jeremiah said, shutting the trunk of the car lock. “You know that right?” Our gazes meet. His eyes were sad and gloomy. I feel a pang of guilt filter in my body, igniting me all over.

    I took in a deep breath, and shook my head, “It’s not that easy Jere.”

    “What is?”

    “You.”

    I feel the current of the wind gush against my bare skin. I held my breath. He took my hands, cupping it with both if his.

    “Please don’t do this.”

    “I am.” I say, breaking away from his grip, wiping the stinging tears away from my face.

    “Violet please?” He says. I say No and started the car. I wanted to drive away, and cry with the moon and the stars I wanted to get away. Away from him.

    But I couldn’t because I knew I’d never leave him. Not ever.

    I jerk the driver’s seat open but before I could, he got himself in the passenger’s seat.

    “Well If you won’t stay I’m going with you.”

    “Fine.” I muttered and ignite the car alive.
    It roared in response. Not having a single clue where I’d end up driving to.

    “I’m scared Vi.” Jeremiah’s voice cracks. “I’m scared that if I’ll let you go back home to Connecticut you’d never come back.”

    “You shouldn’t be.”

    “How can I be so sure?”

    I bite back the tears. He was right. I was lying. I said nothing in response.

    “I have to.” I exhale, I look to him and I watch as his adam’s apple bobble up and down. please don’t cry please don’t cry please just please don’t cry.

    “I’m sorry.” I say, unlocking the car for him.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      GloomyMermaid, this dialogue did a great job of pulling me into the story. You had me thinking, “No, don’t leave!”

      That being said, there was only one part I got tripped up on. In the middle:
      “Violet please?” He says. I say No and started the car.

      It seems like the “I say No and started the car” should be dialogue, not just a normal sentence? I think the tone you establish with the back and forth dialogue is really good, so I’d change this to fit the flow.

      I really wanted to read more though! This story is super intriguing!

      Reply
      • GloomyMermaid

        thank you so much 🙂

        Reply
  25. Beth

    An excerpt from my story I’m currently writing; this part is yet to be properly edited: (please,go easy on me, I’m only 20 and still learning.)


    “It’s nice to meet you all.” I say.
    They gasp at me.
    “You’re British? She’s British!” The one called Grace states.
    “Say something else!” She instructs me.
    I laugh, “Being British really isn’t that cool…”
    They all grin to themselves.
    “Are you British too, Reagan?” Grace asks her.
    “No, American.” Reagan states with an amused tone.
    They all look slightly disappointed.
    “It’s only an accent. What’s the big deal?” I ask.
    “It’s an awesome accent, makes you sound so distinct!” Grace exclaims.
    “Now I’m going to take them away because you’ve all made a fantastic first
    impression.” Hannah says sarcastically, but with a warm giggle.
    She grabs mine and Reagan’s hands and rushes us away from them.
    “Sorry, I didn’t know they’d be so strange…”
    I grin, “They were nice. Apart from Sam. He’s a bit… odd.”
    Hannah giggles, “Sam’s harmless, he’s just crude.”
    I take note.
    Poppy comes over to us.
    “Well, what did you think of our gang?” She asks with a huge smile on her face.
    “Elizabeth was just saying that she thinks Sam is odd.”
    Poppy laughs, “Oh I knew he’d make a standout impression on you,” she inspects her
    nails for a second before looking back at us, “trust me, deep down he’s a
    real sweetheart.”
    Reagan scoffs, “I’ll believe that when I see it,” but then she flicks her hair as
    she peeks to glance at him, “Is he single?”
    Hannah and Poppy exchange knowing looks.
    “Babe, he’s been single for years.” Poppy exclaims.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Beth, all of your punctuation and dialogue tags look great. I also think you did a good job with the number of dialogue tags you used, just enough to be clear who is talking within a large group.
      Can’t wait to see more!

      Reply
      • Beth

        Thank you Kellie 🙂
        Honestly that’s what I struggle with the most, and for some very odd reason, I created a bunch of characters who most likely will hang around in one big group all the time.
        Hopefully I’ll find my way around it!

        Reply
      • Gary Fields

        You are joking, right?

        Reply
        • EmFairley

          I’m with you. The punctuation is far from correct

          Reply
    • Gary G Little

      Accents, we all have one. Y’all, you all, or youse. Always wondered what I sound like to folk from afar.

      Reply
    • Kris

      Beth,
      Good for you starting out so young!! Most of your excerpt is correctly punctuated, and there are also a few errors. I’m going to make a couple of corrections – better to learn them now and get into the habit…
      One of the easiest ways to know if you should be using a period or a comma, is to say the dialog tag by itself to see if it is a complete sentence. For instance, in a couple of places there should be a comma instead of a period. And it also let’s you know if the next word should be capitalized.
      “It’s nice to meet you all,” I say. (a comma because ‘I say.’ isn’t a complete sentence by itself – it is connected to the dialog..)
      “You’re British? She’s British!” the one called Grace states. (lowercase because ‘the one called Grace states.’ isn’t a complete sentence by itself – it is connected to the dialog.)
      There are a couple of others – see if you can spot them.
      Best of luck!!

      Reply
  26. Alex

    I definitely disagree that ‘said is dead’. You can pain a clearer picture by actions instead of using variations of said. As a reader, I also find it simpler and less distracting.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Alex, that’s a great point. I love the simpler and less distracting writing.

      Reply
  27. LilianGardner

    Thanks Kellie, for this revision on dialogue tags and punctuation. I, for one, appreciate a constant reminder on writing correctly.

    Here’s some dialogue I had with my husband, Jules and son Andy, today.
    I called Andy on my mobile phone. When he answered I asked, “At what time will you be here?”
    “At about twelve thirty. What’s for lunch?”
    “I made meat sauce. Do you prefer to have it with short pasta or spaghetti?” I asked.
    “Always short pasta. Spaghetti’s messy.”
    “OK. We’ll cook the pasta when you get here.”
    Jules, my husband entered the kitchen while I was saying ‘bye to Andy.
    “Hang on,” he said, “I want to ask him something.”
    I handed him my phone.

    “Hi! I was thinking of making you onion soup with crunchy bread croutons. What d’ya say?”
    “Thanks Pa. Suppose you make it on Saturday? My wife adores onion soup.”
    “OK,” he said, “see you for lunch,” and handed me my phone.

    The dialogue above isn’t interesting but is it correct? I noticed I only used ‘said’ and’ asked’. I use other words when I write a story, such as exclaimed, commented, remarked, hissed, laughed, etc: etc: to give the dialogue a punch.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Lilian, the punctuation and dialogue tags look great. And I think you’ve made me hungry.
      Great job!

      Reply
      • LilianGardner

        Thanks Kellie.
        Come have a meal, any day.

        Reply
    • Lauren Timmins

      This reminds me of when we go to my grandparents’ house 🙂 The spare use of dialogue tags made the conversation much more realistic.

      Reply
  28. James Ory Theall

    Kelly, great post and good submissions and comments! The use of dialog tags is much a matter of choice, but I think it can be used much of the time to eliminate boring narrative. Example: The two men were discussing the merits of a mountain retreat in Colorado. John had served a tour in Korea as a U.S. marine. He had gone through the Chosin Reservoir tragedy. Jack had also served in the marines, and had landed on a mine and recovered, but lost his sight. John wished Mouse would hurry. He was sick of Jack’s male bovine defecation.

    Changed to dialog, it might sound like this:

    “Jack, why in hell would two ex-marines, in the twilight of our lives, want to buy a damned mountain cabin in Colorado? You’re nuts, Brother-in-law!” John said. I had me enough of cold weather at the Chosin Reservoir when I served in Korea.”

    “Baloney, John! You’re a damned wet blanket – no more fun like you used to be. Don’t forget, I left part of me in Korea, too, when that damned mine exploded and left me without eyes. Get a life, already. What would it hurt you to own a cabin in the Rockies?”

    John was relieved when Mouse Babineaux approached there table.

    “Glad I found you guys,” Mouse said as he pulled up a chair and sat.

    “Hey Mouse, good to see you again,” John said.

    “Simon Babineaux, you old bastard, what are you up to?” Jack asked. “I haven’t seen you since that time you had to leave the party because of everybody teasing you about getting caught in New Iberia with your pants down. You were really frustrated that night.”

    “Jeez, Jack, if I’d known you’d bring that up, I’d have stayed home!”

    I think we’ve learned everything in the dialog that was said in boring narrative. John and Jack are brothers-in-law, they’re elderly, and apparently have conflicting views on the cabin. We also learn that Mouse is a friend whose first name is Simon. (I did this quickly, so please ignore formatting. :-))

    I suggest anyone who wants to learn about dialog, tags, and use, should read Elmore Leonard and the late Robert B. Parker, two of my favorite authors.

    I’m in the process of launching my fifth novel and having lots of fun! Please visit my web site for bibliography. http://jamesorytheall.com
    Again, my compliments on a good post!

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      James,
      Thanks so much for your encouragement and info on dialogue tags. I agree that dialogue is so much more interesting than plain text. Sometimes I find myself skipping paragraphs, just to get back to what the characters are saying.
      Congrats on your fifth novel!

      Reply
  29. Aspholessaria

    If we only use ‘said ‘, we are doing another no-no, i.e. Repetition. We are told to watch out for this, even to the extent of checking that words are not repeated under each other. I believe that varying the tag is fine as long as it isn’t too obtrusive.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Good point, I think it depends on the authors voice and tone. There’s nothing wrong with a little variance.

      Reply
  30. Aspholessaria

    Oh, and I’m a born Brit and educated In England. I followed the link to Grammarly to look at the differences between American rules and British rules. I have *never* seen ‘gypsy’ spelled ‘gipsy’, and as to dialogue punctuation, as far as I am concerned, like American punctuation, it goes inside the quotes.

    Reply
  31. Haylee

    “Silence is important.”

    “Did I say it wasn’t?” She glared the words rather
    than said them. “I know you like silence. I know you value silence. The
    problem is, I don’t. I like noise. I like things to happen. You just don’t get that. You never have.”

    “That’s right. I never have.”

    “But what does that mean?”

    She raised her eyebrows expectantly. “How can this
    relationship work without a little communication.
    We need to express ourselves in order to be healthy. I need us to express
    ourselves. I need you to do that.”

    The weight between them was too much to carry. Something
    that was once normal, accepted, cherished even, is no longer so. The cruelty of
    time is that it warps, twists, and confuses feelings that were once pure into
    something decidedly not.

    “We have been together 40 years.”

    “Yes.”

    “I thought that would be enough.” His shoulders are
    slumped, exhausted from the same communication over and over, the same needs
    and desires expressed.

    “Well, it isn’t.”

    Silence.

    Reply
    • Lauren Timmins

      I absolutely adore the “She glared the words rather than said them.” It’s such a vivid image. I’m a little curious to know who the second speaker is, but the dialogue is still interesting and comprehensible without any information on him. Great job!

      Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Haylee,
      You did a really great job here! You avoided all traditional dialogue tags and used actions! I liked it, very interesting.
      The only thing to be careful with actions is sometimes it’s hard to tell if the person who said the dialogue was also doing the action, or if they were responding to the words with their actions.
      Great job and great tone!

      Reply
  32. Karen B

    I’ve heard that said doesn’t register, and people will overlook it.

    I don’t. I can’t. A writer puts too many saids in a row, and it starts to bug the crap out of me.

    Furthermore, the classics don’t seem to follow this rule. It seems to have sprung up more recently.

    But it’s not a mountain I’m going to die on. At the end of the day, it probably doesn’t matter much–as long as you aren’t using completely ridiculous things and making it obvious that you’re AVOIDING said.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Karen,
      I was checking out some classics actually while I wrote the post and it’s interesting, some of them use said, and actually most of them use dialogue tags sparsely.
      Thanks for your thoughts!

      Reply
      • Karen B

        My perception may be influenced by my recent read-through of the Oz books–lots of “retorted” and “inquired” and the like.

        But I know “rules” change with the times. “Head hopping” is a big no-no now, but when Mitchell did it in Gone with the Wind it wasn’t so much.

        Reply
        • Kellie McGann

          Karen, I agree. I can’t keep up with all the changes. 🙂

          Reply
  33. nianro

    Oh, who needs narrative, anyway? If you give the characters distinctive enough personalities and speech patterns, and contrive some way for them to describe their environment, and you have them refer to each other by name (which has the side benefit of giving a relaxed, casual air to a conversation), you can totally cut all the dialogue tags. And everything else, in fact.

    The following practice has an overwhelming preponderance of curse words; if that’s not your bag, don’t read it.

    * * *

    “I hate the city this time of year.”

    “You hate the city every time of year, Jack.”

    “Yeah, but it’s especially bad right now; all gray and cold and soggy and shit. Nothing but slush in the streets, squishing under my shoes and all; look at this, man, these are good shoes.”

    “That’s because it’s four o’clock in the fuckin’ morning and the machines ain’t been around to sweep it off. You shouldn’t wear good shoes for stuff like this.”

    “Well, Dan, I’d love to wear my shitty shoes, but I left my shitty shoes under your girlfriend’s bed.”

    “Fuck you.”

    “Fuck you too. Is that it?”

    “Yeah, looks like. You ready?”

    “The fuck you mean if I’m ready? It’s a fuckin’ gas station. It’s not like it’s a bank or some shit.”

    “Man, you could mess up a gas station worse than I could mess up a bank.”

    “Yeah, whatever, motherfucker … a’ight, here we go. Ladies first, Dan.”

    “Okay, nobody move! This is a hold-up!”

    “Get down on the floor, motherfuckers! That’s right! All ya’ll, get down! Go down! Flat, bitch! Flat with your hands on your fuckin’ head! Anybody moves gets shot!”

    “Please do not shoot! Take the money, it is in the cash register!”

    “Did you just reach for a gun, motherfucker?”

    “No! I did not reach for a gun! I turned off the gas line, sir! It is standard company policy, sir! I am cooperating!”

    “Dan! I think this motherfucker just reached for a gun!”

    “What? What kind of motherfucker is gonna be stupid enough to try and reach for a gun with an AK in his face?”

    “This motherfucker, apparently.”

    “No! Please! Do not shoot! Take the money! Take whatever you would like and go! I will not call the police!”

    “The police? Dan, did you hear us mention the police?”

    “Didn’t mention the police, Jack.”

    “You didn’t mention the police, and I didn’t mention the police—well, then who told you anything about the police?”

    “No one told me about the police!”

    “Well, if nobody told you *about* the police, why the fuck you gonna stand there *talking* about the police, unless you thinking about *calling* the police?”

    “I am not going to call the police!”

    “DAN! There he goes again! Talking about calling the police on us and shit!”

    “I don’t think he’s cooperating, Jack.”

    “Well, as a matter-of-fucking-fact, I don’t think he’s cooperating, either.”

    “I am cooperating!”

    “You’re cooperating? How do we know you ain’t gonna call the cops the second we leave?”

    “I think we should shoot him, Jack.”

    “I’m starting to think that same way.”

    “No! Please!”

    “Well, Jack, I’ll tell you what. You head to the back of the store and get us some cold ones, and if this greasy-haired motherfucker here doesn’t give me any kind of crap by the time you get back, maybe—maybe—we’ll let him go.”

    “Take all you want!”

    “Okay, Dan. But if I come back and he’s giving anybody any kinda problems … I’ll shoot his swarthy ass my self.”

    “…”

    “…”

    “Did you just blink at me?”

    “What?”

    “I *said*, did you just *blink* at me?”

    What? Yes!”

    “Did I give you *permission* to blink?”

    “You—I—”

    “DID I give you PERMISSION to BLINK?”

    “No! No!”

    “Then why did you blink at me?”

    “I do not know! Please, don’t shoot me, I have two children at home, and a—”

    “Aiiieee!”

    “Jesus, he shot him!”

    “The fuck the rest of ya’ll talking ’bout? Keep your fuckin’ heads down!”

    “…”

    “…”

    “You ready to go, Jack?”

    “Yeah. You got the money?”

    “Yeah. Let’s go.”

    * * *

    Obviously, this creates a very weird rhythm; were I inclined to edit it later, there’d have to be a whole host of changes to maintain the tension. However, for a less tense situation—a casual, postprandial discussion, for example—the rhythm issue is much less pronounced.

    Reply
    • Kellie McGann

      Nianro,
      This is a really great example. I like the stylistic approach. I agree that the tension could be even stronger, but this is a fun example of no dialogue tags.

      Reply
  34. lkingwithlove

    I really enjoyed this article.

    Reply
  35. Toni East

    This discussion has been very interesting. So many different points of view. No one, as far I can see has mentioned dialogue to oneself. What is the best way to do that? In some writing article that I read, it stated that there should not be any of….. eg – she said to herself – dialogue. Is that correct? How would the reader know the person was talking to themselves? I am busy trying to write my first novel, and have ‘self-talk’ in italics as I am not sure of the correct way to do it. Any ideas????

    Reply
    • LilianGardner

      I also use italics for self-talk. It seems to be Ok.

      Reply
      • Toni East

        Thank you for your reply Lilian. I am glad that I seem to be on the right track at least.

        Reply
  36. Linda Visman

    If a writer need something more than ‘said’, they should show it in the action that demonstrate how the speaker feels.

    Reply
  37. Gwen

    This is a great guide for writing dialogue tags! One issue, though, is that this: “A comma is used after the dialogue tag, OUTSIDE of quotation marks, to reintroduce the dialogue.” is not actually correct in all cases–it only applies when the dialogue tag is interrupting mid-sentence.

    “You are a complete moron,” Sarah tells David fiercely, “and I am ashamed that I ever dated you.” The full sentence Sarah is saying is “You are a complete moron, and I am ashamed that I ever dated you,” so the dialogue tag has to be offset by commas.

    A good example of when not to have that second comma is in your example of too many dialogue tags in short dialogue:

    * “A test,” Jen answered, “Do you need something?”

    This makes it seem like Jen is saying “A test, Do you need something?” rather than “A test. Do you need something?” To convey the latter dialogue instead:

    “A test,” Jen answered. “Do you need something?”

    Reply
  38. JustPixelz

    I’m wondering about combining tags with other elements.

    “I’m ready,” said George impatiently, waving his keys.

    It seems clumsy but less clumsy than…

    “I’m ready,” said George. He waved his keys.

    Reply
  39. JustPixelz

    I’ve discovered it’s easier to reduce tagging by giving someone a distinctive speech characteristic. For example, two men speaking makes it awkward (and useless) to say “he said” repeatedly.

    “After the zoo we can get ice cream,” said Henry.
    “Yum yum chocolate chip sweetie!” (Reader knows this is Daniel)
    “OK.”

    Reply
  40. Alan Stockbridge

    Why does the advice to “Only ever use ‘said’ as a dialogue tag” tempt me to write a story whose main characters have the last name Said?
    “Mr. Said I told you what I said before,” Mrs. Said said.
    “I don’t care if you don’t like calling each other by our last name. Its something custom demands that we do Mrs. Said,” said Mr. Said.
    “It makes me sad, Mr. Said, that we must do this,” Mrs Said said.
    “I understood what you said,”Mr. Said said. “But just saying it doesn’t make it so.”
    “But what of our poor daughter, Miss Said? When she said her name in class her teacher misheard her, and now her name is miss said whenever she is called on,” Mrs. Said said.
    “Well said, mom,” Miss Said said.

    Reply
  41. JColling

    I enjoyed reading this article. Thank you. 😀

    Reply
  42. Gary Fields

    “If you are writing short dialogue, where each line is only a few words, you can use fewer dialogue tags. For example:

    “I’m trying to study,” Jen said.
    “For what?” Ben asked.
    “A test,” Jen answered, “Do you need something?”
    “I guess not.” said Ben.”

    First point I would like to make is that the length of dialogue has NOTHING to do with how many tags to use. Generally, it’s the less speakers, the less tags necessary. Remember, dialogue tags have just one purpose: to inform the reader who is speaking. If you only have two speakers, you can use near zero tags.

    Second point is that the punctuation is wrong in the example.

    “A test,” Jen answered, “Do you need something?”

    should be

    “A test,” Jen answered. “Do you need something?”

    Reply
  43. Jujubar Williams

    “I guess not.” said Ben.

    Should be “I guess not,” said Ben. Comma ends dialogue tag, not a period. Good luck and best wishes.

    Reply
  44. andy-m

    My personal opinion:
    Remove as many dialogue tags as possible
    Mostly use “said”
    Use alternative verbs for real emphasis rather than the norm
    And does the reader really care unless it is so excessive or unusual to break their concentration?

    Reply
  45. mohad

    “Why are you running away from them?” asked Jerry.”Its complicated,”Sarah whispered with a sigh,”they want to use me as an evedence.”
    “why?what did you see?”
    “I can’t tell you any more.please leave me alone.”
    “You know I won’t do that.Not until you tell me the truth.”He hold her hand.
    she tried to pull her hand out of his.”Trust me.Im going to get everything figured out.”
    “Why don’t you let me help you?”he asked angrily.
    she stood up and as she was walking out of room said,”It’s safer for you not to know.I don’t want to put you in danger.”

    Reply
  46. Liz

    The keynote speaker at a recent conference had just published a book, her first. The first thing her publisher had her do was change all the dialogue tags to “said” and to “put the person’s name first.”
    example … “This is what I want,” advised Bill. to “This is what I want,” said Bill.
    It looks like the correct answer is whatever your publisher says, unless you self-publish. Personally, I like a decent mix.

    Reply
    • Liz

      OOPS. my mistake…the correct way her publisher wanted was … Bill said.

      Reply
  47. retrogeegee

    “I,m glad you are coming in time for a quick supper,” said Mercy into her phone being held to her ear.

    “Oh, sure,” answered Gretchen. “I’ve been looking forward to working on this Newsletter of yours.”

    “Well, its not mine. I hope. It belongs to us. ”

    “Sure enough. Ours. But truth told the idea was yours, Mercy.”

    Mercy moved the phone from its shoulder hold to hold it in right hand sighed with exaggeration as she said, ” What, Gretchen, are you loosing your nerve and don’t want to be assocoiated in case this fails.”

    “Oh Mercy, replied Gretchen, ” Why do you always have to look at things from the darkest view possible. I am just trying to give credit where credit is due. Can’t you get that through your thick skull. Sometimes the hardest part of working with you is getting you to accept your own contributions.” Sighing herself, Gretchen added, “You waste my precious energy trying to hold up the obvious when I might be making my own contribution.”

    “OK, OK!!”, retorted Mercy. “Let’s just say good by for now, and I’ll see you in a couple of hours.”

    “You got it, see you soon.” and Mercy heard the gentle click indicating this conversation was a done deal.

    my 15 minute practice for today.

    Reply
  48. EndlessExposition

    Dialogue is my favorite part of writing. Lately I’ve been trying to use as few tags as possible. I think it makes a scene flow better, but that’s my personal preference. This is something from a new-ish WIP (it’s a long story). Reviews are much appreciated!

    “Oh boy.”

    “What?” Emmet was peering through the blinds on the front window.

    “They sent Her Highness to work the case.”

    “What are you talking about?” I left my charges to see what all the fuss was about. Emmet obligingly stepped aside to let me have a look. Outside the Kelley’s house a gleaming silver car was maneuvering into a parking space on the curb. “Who is that?”

    “That’s Detective Cameron from the Major Crimes Task Force.”

    “What kind of police detective can afford a Lexus?”

    Emmet pursed his lips. “Detective Cameron is…interesting. You’ll see.”

    “I guess I will. Can you take some more shots of the wounds to their heads for me? I don’t want to miss anything after we move the bodies.”

    “Sure thing.” We left the window and Emmet hunkered down next to the corpses to take his shots. I watched over his shoulder, pointing out the details I was most interested in. He was good, definitely qualified for a bigger lab than Morton County.

    There was a knock from the foyer. Sean hollered, “I’ll get it!” I heard the door open, and Sean chirped, “Hiya, Detective!”

    If Emmet hadn’t already mentioned that the detective was a woman, I might not have been able to tell. The voice that responded to Sean’s greeting was smooth and deep. “Officer O’Dare. The bodies?”

    “They’re right in here! Emmet and Dr. MacBride are already taking a look at ‘em.”

    “MacBride? That’s a name I haven’t heard before.” The deep voice had entered the room. I turned around – and found myself staring into the darkest pair of eyes I had ever seen. I think Sean might’ve said something. I wasn’t paying attention. The dark eyes held my gaze and I had no interest in looking away.

    I heard myself say, “That’s me. MacBride. Dr. Alexandra MacBride, hi.”

    The woman to whom the eyes belonged shucked off her leather gloves and held out her hand. “Detective Alicia Cameron. Pleased to meet you.”

    Reply
  49. nancy

    I like said. But that said, there’s another debate: “Ouch!” Bill said. OR “Ouch!” said Bill. Anyone stuck on this?

    Reply
    • EndlessExposition

      Name and then tag, I think. Puts the emphasis on who’s doing the speaking.

      Reply
  50. Andressa Andrade

    I think “said” is a great word and should be used every time it suffices. But I am not against using other verbs when they add intensity or help to make the scene clearer. Sometimes, I want to especify that my character is whispering, and not just saying something. I think that’s worth telling the reader. So I think that in the “said debate” I’m kind of in the middle.

    Reply
  51. 709writer

    “Why don’t you just take her to the park?” Rouge asked, propping her boot on the edge of the fountain.

    Shadow massaged the bridge of his nose and sighed – again. “She shouldn’t be out in the open.”

    “You sure that’s the real reason?”

    He lifted his gaze, directing a scowl at his work partner. “I’m not taking her to the park.”

    “You’d both have fun.” A smiled softened Rouge’s lips. “It’s not like you’re adopting her, Shadow.”

    Rouge didn’t have a clue. He shifted his attention to the cloud-swept sky. There was no point in getting close to the girl he was watching over – not when she’d be taken from him.

    Friendships were dangerous. They only bred pain.

    His watch beeped. Turning toward the street, he said over his shoulder, “Got work to do. I’ll see you later.”

    I lean closer to “said only” than “any dialogue tag goes”, but I don’t think it has to be limited just to “said”. In my opinion, tags like “asked” “whispered” “yelled” and “shouted” are ok, and can convey something about the words being said without becoming distracting, as long as they’re used sparingly.

    Tags like “he entreated” “she queried” “he quipped” “she protested” can get in the way because words can’t be queried or quipped, etc, they can only be spoken. Also, when tags like “he quipped” are used, I know when I’ve read that in a book, it takes the fun out of figuring out on my own that what the character said was witty.

    This topic is definitely debated pretty hard, and it’s always good to see everyone’s take on it. Thanks for the article, Kellie!

    Reply
  52. Savannah Goins

    I just finished reading Six of Crows and Crooked Kingdom by Leigh Bardogu and her ability to use very few dialogue tags and still make the dialogue easy to follow really stood out to me. I hope to apply that to my writing. As for the “said” debate, I think using more descriptive words when they flow to your mind as you write is better than always using “said,” but I don’t think that “said” should be banned in the name of forcing in a more descriptive word that doesn’t neccessarily even make the point of a specific sentace any better.

    Reply
  53. Christine Denniss

    I am on the said team. I like to let the read use there own imagination and not tell them how someone said something.
    This was very helpful. Thank you.

    Reply
  54. Carol Huxley

    I like the variety of the anti-said brigade. “Argued Ted” gives a clearer vision of the personalities involved.
    .

    Reply
  55. guest

    if you have to tell the reader how to hear your dialogue, you’re not writing it well enough

    Reply
  56. Bruce W. Maquilken

    Hi Kellie,
    Just wanted to say a quick thank you for helping me out with dialogue tags! I didn’t even know that’s what they’re called! I’ve been writing songs since 1982, and decided recently to try my hand at prose. I’m having a blast, but it’s more difficult than I thought! Thanks again!

    Reply
  57. Karen Petersen

    I have a question about using commas after a dialogue tag that follows the dialogue, when the sentence continues on. For example: “Punctuation can be so frustrating!” Karen said, and threw her hands up in the air.

    Is it right to put the comma after the dialogue tag, even though the rest of that sentence doesn’t have a subject other than the “Karen” from the dialogue tag? I see this in fiction all the time, but can’t find any direct references to it online or in the Chicago Manual of Style.

    Reply
  58. Warren Lane

    I like the side of the argument that used more descriptive verbs as it helps define what the speaker’s character might be. Said and Asked are very impersonal

    Reply
  59. Billy Dean

    This is an old thread but I enjoyed it very much. A few years ago I came across a story in which the author used — to indicate the beginning of dialogue. I initially thought it was a pretty good idea but ran into problems when I wanted a dialogue tag in the middle of a conversation. Just curious if anyone has used that technique and how they handled it.

    Reply

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