How to Write Dialogue Tags

When I was a screenwriter, dialogue tags were simple. I wrote the name of the character and underneath, I wrote his/her dialogue. Easy, peezie, lemon squeezie, as my daughter used to say.

Writing dialogue tags in a novel is a bit more complicated. We usually use “he said” or “she said” to indicate who’s speaking. But often, the dialogue doesn’t need to be labeled because it’s easy to figure out from the context who is speaking. When I go through each draft of my book, I ask myself which “he saids” are necessary and which can be cut. It’s amazing how much stronger the dialogue is when I’ve eliminated unnecessary words.

I also try not to use variations  on “he said/she said.” “He exclaimed,” “he shouted,” “he whispered,” “he cried,” and the like are usually just distracting. They take readers’ attention away from my (hopefully) wonderful dialogue.

But there are times when using another tag is necessary. That’s especially true if you have more than two people in a conversation. You need tags to keep who’s speaking straight, but then you end up with a page  of “he saids” and “she saids.” That’s when I throw in a few variations, just to keep things interesting.

The other time I feel it’s necessary to use a verb other than “said” is when what a character says and how she says it are contradictory. “I’m going to disembowel you,” he whispered. “I love you,” he spat.”

When writing a first draft, my inclination is to us the dreaded ly adverb to indicate the emotion behind what the character said. “Let’s go!” Joe said urgently. “I want you naked,” she said hungrily. That’s fine, as long as it stays in the first draft. Underlining the emotion behind a speech is a mistake inexperienced writers make. Most of the time, we need to trust that readers will understand from the context how the dialogue is being said. If they don’t, adding a horrible ly adverb isn’t the way to fix it.

Another thing that bothers me is when a lot of action is added onto dialogue.

“I love you,” he said as he pulled a diamond ring out of his pocket and placed it in her palm.

First, it would be hard to do all that action in the time it took to say three words. But more importantly, the words tend to get lost in the midst of the action. In general, I think it’s better to keep action separate from dialogue.

He pulled a diamond ring out of his pocket and placed it in her palm. “I love you,” he said.

That’s so much better.

Best wishes,




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