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He said, she said – dialogue tags and why they matter

Yellow speech bubbles, dialogue tags
Written by M. Amelia Eikli

Have you ever been confused by conflicting advice when it comes to dialogue tags? Some seem to think you should never use anything but “said”, while others tell you to vary it with words like whispered, stated, moaned and yelled. Don’t worry! We’ll show you why dialogue tags are a big deal, and how you make them work for you.

The basic rule of thumb

Always use “say” as your main dialogue tag. This little word, in any tense, is almost invisible to the reading eye. We’ve been conditioned to ignore it, just pick up the information about who’s doing the talking and move on. This way, all the focus is on what your characters are actually saying, rather than how they say it.

Avoid modification

You can mess up the simplicity of “said” by describing it too much. If someone is angry or sad, show it in their words or actions, not by slapping “angrily” or “sadly” after it. Adding information or action around the statement, on the other hand, lets you paint a much more precise picture of what’s going on. Remember – your dialogue tags are there to help the reader imagine what’s happening.

Look at this example:

“We’re too late,” John said despairingly.

Seems pretty straight forward, right? But compare it with these three versions – they all show John saying something despairingly, but the mood is very different between the three:

“We’re too late,” John said, pulling his hair in frustration.
“We’re too late.” John hung his head.
John fell to the floor. “We’re too late!”

This is “show” not “tell”.

Variation is the spice of life

Sometimes, you really do want to put the emphasis on how something is said over what is said. For example, if someone suddenly groans, gasps or yells in the middle of a conversation, we understand that something has changed.

In this example, “said” simply doesn’t cut it, unless you want to show that Nadia is an incredibly stoic person:

“They got me,” Nadia said. She had an arrow deep in her back.

Now, mentally replace “said” with groaned, gasped, gurgled and yelled. See how the mood and tempo shifts. Think through the image you want to create, and if “said” doesn’t do the trick – use something else!

Dialogue tags add information about the narrator

Sometimes, if your story is told in first person, dialogue tags may say more about the narrator than the speaker.

Consider this example:

“I have had really bad headaches lately,” Jaz said.
I sighed but kept smiling.

Replace “said” with whined, yapped, chirped, bragged and moaned to see how the mood changes. This tells us what the “I” feels or thinks about the speaker. This needs to be more important than what the speaker is saying.

Used sparingly, dialogue tags like these are a great way of building character – inviting us inside their head without describing them directly.

Go for clarity

If in doubt, default to the basic rule of thumb and read the sentence out loud to yourself. Does it sound right? Does it paint the right picture? Does it put emphasis on what’s being said or the way it’s being said? Make the necessary adjustments and try again until you get it right. You’re in charge of your voice and style, but don’t forget the reader.

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