by Deb Brammer
Dialog Tags are the words that identify who said what in dialog. For example in the following sentence “said Deb” is the dialog tag: “Dialog tags are superfluous,” said Deb.
Nothing is worse in a story’s dialog than not being able to figure out which character is saying what. The reader ends up having to go back and read the dialog several times just to figure it out.
On the other hand putting a dialog tag on every spoken line gets tedious.
Many beginning writers use a synonym for the word “said.”
“I just love to write,” Zoe gushed.
“Me too,” Zach added.
“What do you like to write,” Zoe inquired.
“Almost anything,” Zach replied.
In this example the dialog tags call attention to themselves and disrupt the flow. When a dialog tag is necessary, the word “said” is often best. It becomes an invisible word that the reader skips over without realizing it. In this way the speaker is identified with a minimum of disruption to the dialog.
Occasionally you will want to use a tag that shows how a character says something. In this way the tag is actually adding information and painting a picture for the reader.
“Be quiet! Here comes the teacher,” Bo whispered.
“Fire!” Arnie shouted. “Everyone get out of the building!”
Most often the best dialog tag is the one that is missing. The reader knows who is speaking by the action. Each paragraph shows a different character talking. Notice the dialog tags in this quote from my book Moose. I’ve only used one dialog tag here. The other tags are implied by action.
We tossed rocks in the river and watched the tourists drive by.
“So.” I said. “Just a few more days until camp.”
Moose fired a rock downstream and knocked a twig off a boulder. “I don’t know. Maybe I’ll give camp a miss this year.”
No. Not after all the work I’d done to prepare him. Not when he was just starting to grow as a Christian. “What do you mean you’ll give it a miss?”
“Think I won’t go.
“Why not? Someone already paid your way. The food’s pretty good. You like kayaking and fishing and stuff. We play games and shoot targets and pull pranks.
Moose’s eyes lit up. “Pranks? Like what?”
Perhaps I had said too much. “Oh, you know. Just the typical camp pranks. Like sneaking up on a sleeping person, squirting shaving cream in his hand, and tickling his nose.”
“Is that all? Can’t you come up with something better than that?
Many well-written books today have very few dialog tags in them. The speaker is usually identified by action. But you need to be careful that the action you use in this way is meaningful action. It needs to show something about the character and what he is feeling or move the action forward. Otherwise the action will end up distracting as much as a bad dialog tag.
Olivia straightened the bow on her dress. “You are the best writer ever, Claudia. “I wish I could write as well as you do.”
Claudia played with the salt and pepper shakers. “I still have a lot to learn. You’ll get better if you keep practicing.”
“Do you really think so?” Claudia’s eyes followed the dots on the ceiling tiles. “I want to be a good writer, but I’m not sure if I’ll ever get there.”
Also avoid action that doesn’t really work as a dialog tag.
“I don’t know,” she shrugged.
“I’m really happy,” she smiled.
“You’re impossible,” she hissed.
“Shrug” and “smile” are not synonyms for “said.” They are actions. And you can’t “hiss” words that have no s’s.
She shrugged. “I don’t know.”
“I’m really happy.” She smiled.
“Psssst!” she hissed. “Get over here!”
See page 54 of Lee Wyndam’s book Writing for Children and Teenagers for more about dialog tags.
You’ll find that you need dialog tags the most when you have several people in the conversation. When three or four people are talking in one conversation, the reader will have trouble following it without enough dialog tags.
Dialog tags are a minor detail, but when you master them, you can look professional in one more way.