Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Lens On: Dialog Tags

Lens On: Dialog Tags
By Brad R. Cook

Do we read tags, or do our brains just absorb them and focus on the next line of dialog?

I do know this, there isn’t one answer, there isn’t even a right answer, but there are some suggestions.

Today I am focusing The Writers’ Lens on Dialog Tags, those pesky little sentences that hook on to our characters speeches. Most are short, some are overly wordy, but all are packed with information. Do we even need them, though?

For those who are uncertain what I am talking about, Dialog Tags announce who is speaking in the text. They most often are identified as: I said, he said, she asked.

When Should A Dialog Tag Be Used?
            Anytime a new character speaks on a page. Dialog tags are there for the reader, as the writer we know who is talking, we can hear them clearly in our heads, but the reader might be a little confused especially when there’s a crowded room of people talking over each other. A few tags can go a long way.

            It is essential to tag dialog when two or more characters are on the page. Think of a movie, they way the director jumps from one close up face shot to another when people are talking, they are visually tagging the conversation. It’s no different for writers. Identify who is speaking and the reader won’t have to reread to clarify.

When don’t you need dialog tags?
            When you only have two characters. If there are only two people talking on the page then after you have established the order you no longer need the tags. The conversation becomes a back and forth that is easily followed. It helps if the characters have different voices.
            When the context of the surrounding paragraphs describes the character. If you just got done writing about the character stepping up to a podium, then you don’t need a tag, the reader will know who is speaking.

            If you are Ernest Hemingway.

Said Brad vs. Brad Said
            Does order matter? No. Just use one and stick with it!

Which Dialog Tag Should I Use?
            Said, always use said. Most readers expect to see said, so the brain doesn’t even register it, we simply read the tag and move on. Because of this it can actually be distracting to use different tags.

            But what about asked, whispered, shouted, agreed, or any of the other descriptors? Here’s where the rules get murky, you can use them, sometimes you should use them… BUT you need to ask, should you just use said and move on, or do you need to use a different descriptor.

Which Dialog Tags Should I NOT Use?
            Telling Tags. “What a day.” I lamented. This says nothing, one could argue that the writer needs to mention the character’s feelings in the tag because “what a day” could mean anything without context, and they’d be right. But show the lament, or else you’ve missed a great chance to explore the character. Always show.  The same goes for declared, regretted, bragged, or… you get my point.

            Unneeded Tags. “Damn You!” I screamed. Readers are smart; an exclamation point is universal for screaming, shouting, or any number of similar emotions. Save the white space and add two words to some other description.  

Can I Conveying Action With Dialog Tags?
            Yes. But…be careful, you don’t want to slow up the pace of the conversation. So use when it is necessary. Here is also where you find two differences of thought. Some say you shouldn’t use action tags like laughed, smiled, or frowned. That action cannot be spoken and should not be in the dialog, but I would disagree. I would say that a sentence could call for action between the dialog. “That’s funny.” I chuckled. “But we really should get back.”

And since we’re on the subject,

Where Should I Put The Dialog Tag? Before, After, or In-between?
            Before or after – that’s up to a personal preference and how you identify characters. Some would say to identify the character before they speak to help the reader, others would argue that it should go at the end because it is the conversation that is more important. You decide, but only use one.

            In-between – yes! A great way to break up long monologues is with actions tags. People rarely stand stiff as a board and talk. We are animated creatures, usually performing multiple tasks at once. Only politicians like long speeches.

Well, I hope that helps everyone understand Dialog Tags. If you want a fun exercise, check out how your favorite authors tag their books. It’s something I notice now and I always get a kick out of it.

What is your favorite place for a Dialog Tag, or how do you feel about the said only world we now live in? Let us know in the comments.

Brad R. Cook is a historical fantasy author and President of St. Louis Writers Guild. Please visit or follow me on Twitter @bradrcook


  1. Tags have interested me since my teenage years. When I did not notice them they were fine, but once I noticed them they either enhanced or became a block to my reading experience. Dean Koontz is a famous and well loved author, but I quit reading his books fairly quickly because I hated the way the tagged his dialogue in at least two of his early books. I can not remember which books they were but they were filled with repetitive tags that irked me for some reason I no longer remember. I have not read one of his books since the early to mid 90's. I keep telling myself to give him another chance because I know so many people that love his work. But my point is tags can matter to the reader.

    I have personally toyed with them, manipulated them, used them the right and wrong way, both intentionally and unintentionally. And I still barely know what I am doing with them. I know I love to use action tags and to omit them whenever possible, and I have Dean Koontz to thank for that. I really am going to pick up one of his books very soon if for no other reason than to pay him respect for sticking in my mind for his tag lines.

    1. For me it was Hemingway, he doesn't use any tags for long stretches. It fascinated me. Still does. But it made me a minimalist.

  2. Personally, I don't agree about the "said only" thing (any more than I agree about the "for the love of god, don't use adverbs!" rule). As a reader, I find a constant stream of "saids" and "askeds" boring. As a writer, I like to challenge myself to say things in different ways.

    I prefer inserting action between bits of dialog instead of using plain tags wherever possible. This helps move the story, especially where I need to do a lot of exposition.

  3. I agree, I prefer to add action between my dialog and keep any other tags to a minimum.

  4. I don’t believe this. It ain’t happening.

    Is it time to bash the classics and the old-school of writing styles? No disrespect meant, but what are your authoritative sources? Your thesis on Dialog Tags is, to be sure, provocative.

    [Said, always use said. Most readers expect to see said, so the brain doesn’t even register it, we simply read the tag and move on.]

    “Your ideas sound great,” he intoned. That dialog tag may indeed be bad writing. Who knows what intoned means. But…

    “Please don’t say that again,” Jerry lamented. So what’s wrong with lamented?

    Every word in the book should be meaningful. I even labor over whether the element “a” or “the” best fits in a sentence. Now we’re told we can only use meaningless dialog tags like “said, asked, answered” that the reader mentally ignores. Maybe they’ll ignore the whole book.

    Today’s good writer, it now seems, writes only in short sentences, uses bland words, and writes down to the uneducated with poor grammar. Hemingway, Austen, and our favorite native T.W. are now washed-up history.

    [But show the lament, or else you’ve missed a great chance to explore the character. Always show. The same goes for declared, regretted, bragged, or…]

    Let me tell you about “show, don’t tell.” The reader knows what lamented means, especially within the context of the quote. True, the word conveys a different image to everyone. But that’s what makes the story personal to every reader. Your mental image of lamented transforms the author’s story into your own story. The reader provides the imagery. The reader sees the protagonist lamenting. Now that’s “show and tell.”

    How am I supposed to show a lament? Should I detail it with an extra sentence or paragraph? How wordy do I need to become in order to promote meaningless words, like said?

    When did good writing become bad writing? Must we surrender to the modern-day literary writer aghast over colorful words and sentences-of-this-length? We are no longer allowed to use descriptive adverbs, colorful adjectives, spicy verbs, and pesky exclamations (referencing previous advice). Just what can we still do? What fly-by-night agent or author, who just happened to pen a good seller, is perpetrating all this latest intelligence?

    Your thesis, Brad, is well-written, as usual. You state your thoughts clearly and forcefully with a good flow to your iterative points. Your punctuation needs occasional attention though.

    Please keep pumping out your theses at “The Writers Lens”. I’m collecting them. Lord knows I need the help. I’m never satisfied with my own challenging manuscript. 55 re-writes and still counting! I’m a career re-writer, never published. Frustrating.

  5. I prefer 'said'. No adverbs. No fancy words. Just plain and simple 'said'. I prefer seeing emotions and hearing tone for myself, not be told how a character feels or how he/she said something. The use of adverbs in tags takes me out of a story and reads lazy. If a reader is unable to see and/or hear the tone and emotion in dialogue through the writer's word choice and/or action, then the writer is not doing his/her job. For me, figuring how to convey a character's tone and emotion in dialogue is half the fun of writing. Very good article! I enjoyed it.

  6. The Concept of Show & Tell

    I am interested in a related conversation on the concept of Show & Tell in literary writing. I would welcome a guest speaker to cover this subject at our workshops.

    There is a lot of talk currently within the guild about Show Don’t Tell. It is certainly preferable to its opposite. Consider.

    Tell Only
    “Get out,” he shouted in anger. This sentence tells me the speaker is angry. But how is he angry? I cannot picture him.

    Show Only
    He clenched his fists. “Get out.” These two sentences show me his anger. I can now envision the scene. But did he shout or spit between his teeth?

    Show & Tell
    “Get out,” he shouted with clenched fists. This sentence both shows and tells. Maybe I am wrong, but I think this one works best. Together the show and tell reinforce each other. It is not wordy, consisting of only one extra word.

    There is one good thing about a new author writing best sellers. The author gets to break the rules established by the last great author, and gets to create new ones for wannabes to follow. Remember, you first heard the concept of Show & Tell here.

    1. LOL -- Funny you should ask for a workshop on this topic! More to come soon, but here's the basic info:

      A special Workshop for Writers!
      The 12-Step Program: How to Show, How to Not Tell
      Presented by Suzann Ledbetter Ellingsworth of the
      Saturday, April 6, 2013
      10am to Noon
      Kirkwood Community Center
      111 S. Geyer Rd.