What is dialogue?
Dialogue is the spoken interaction between two or more characters. Usually, dialogue is spoken out loud, but it can also be things like sign language or telekinesis — it’s any form of expression, as long as the characters can understand each other. Dialogue can be used to develop characters, convey exposition about your story’s world, or move the plot forward.
Ultimately, learning how to write dialogue in a story is one of the most important skills in a writer’s toolbox.
In order to write clear, concise dialogue that will elevate your story and engage your readers, you’ll need to understand how to use dialogue tags. Also called speech tags, these unassuming words can make or break an otherwise well-written scene. But what is a dialogue tag, exactly, and how do we use it to take our story to the next level? By following a few basic principles, you’ll be writing compelling dialogue in no time. Let’s dive in.
What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags (or speech tags) are short phrases that identify the speaker of a line of dialogue. They can occur before, during, or after a character’s spoken dialogue. They’re used to make it clear who’s speaking and help the reader follow the conversation. The most common dialogue tag in writing is “he said” or “she said.”
There are a few different ways to write dialogue tags, and we’ll look at them all in more detail below. Here’s a quick example:
“I made some coffee,” said Julie.
Here, “‘I made some coffee’” is the dialogue, and “said Julie” is the dialogue tag. They both appear on the same line in the story.
Why do we use dialogue tags in fiction writing?
We use dialogue tags and speech tags in a story to clarify who’s talking so that the reader doesn’t get confused, as well as to give more depth and context to the words that are being said. If your on-page conversation goes too long without a dialogue tag, your reader can lose track of who’s saying what. When this happens, they need to stop reading, go back to the top of the conversation, and count each line to try and remember whose turn it is to talk. At this point, you’ve broken their connection to the story.
However, be mindful of using repetitive dialogue tags. Punctuating dialogue with too many tags is one of the common mistakes new writers often make. Using too many can weigh down the actual dialogue and distract from the story. Instead, use tags only when needed or when they add another layer to the characters speaking.
Dialogue tags also give us a way to break up long stretches of story dialogue, to add movement to the scene, and to reveal something new about the character. Here are a few examples of effective dialogue tags:
“So you’re finally done with that jerk?” he said, leaning forward.
She took a sip of her drink. “Looks that way.”
The first speaker has an action attached to his speech tag that gives us a hint about how he’s feeling. The second speaker has an action preceding her dialogue that also gives a hint about how she’s feeling. With just these two simple lines, we can already imagine the story building up around them.
Sometimes, a speech tag can change the inflection of a line of story dialogue. For example,
“Look at that!” he said, spreading his cards out on the table. “A full house.”
“You’ve had a lot of luck this evening,” said John irritably.
What if we changed the dialogue tag?
“Look at that!” he said, spreading his cards out on the table. “A full house.”
“You’ve had a lot of luck this evening,” said John, grinning.
The dialogue stays exactly the same, but the context and the relationship between the two characters shifts because we’ve used a different dialogue tag. If you were to just use “said John” as your dialogue tag, the reader could imagine several different scenarios. You’d have to find other places to sneak in the background information they needed to understand the dialogue’s subtext.
Used in this way, a well-placed dialogue tag can communicate something a lot bigger about your story. We’ll look at different ways to say “said” in writing and other words for “said” when writing story dialogue later on in this article.
You may also notice that the capitalization changes when the line ends in an exclamation mark. We’ll take a closer look at placing dialogue tags and the rules of appropriate punctuation below.
When to use speech tags in writing
You’ll notice from the examples above that the placement of the dialogue tags can shift from one line to another; they don’t always stay in the same place. Let’s look at how to format dialogue when using dialogue tags before, during, and after a line of speech.
How to use speech tags before dialogue
In some older novels, you’ll see speech tags being used before the dialogue:
Shane said, “I didn’t think you’d mind.”
This sentence structure has generally fallen out of favor in contemporary writing. The exception? If your character is quoting someone else:
“And then what happened?”
“Well, then Shane said, ‘I didn’t think you’d mind.’”
Usually, the best way to use a dialogue tag before a line of speech is to choose an action for your character:
“And then what happened?”
“Well, then Shane said, ‘I didn’t think you’d mind.’”
Sheila gasped. “He really said that?”
Here, the action tag identifies Sheila as the speaker. We’ll look closer at using action tags further below.
How to use speech tags in the middle of dialogue
Using dialogue tags can be a good way to break up long lines of dialogue, to imply a natural pause in the line, or to convey a shift in tone. For example:
“I just feel so tired all the time,” she said. “Like nothing matters anymore.”
Compare with the dialogue tag used at the end:
“I just feel so tired all the time. Like nothing matters anymore,” she said.
In the latter, the line of dialogue feels faster, like a singular thought. In the former, we feel like the speaker has paused for breath, or paused to add a new idea. Neither one of these is right or wrong; it’s up to you to decide which one is the best fit for that particular moment of your story.
Here’s another example:
“I just feel so tired all the time. Like nothing matters anymore,” she said. “But after tomorrow, things will be different.”
Here, the dialogue tag serves as an axis between one tone and another. The line begins feeling despondent, hinges on the dialogue tag, and ends feeling hopeful.
How to use tags at the end of the dialogue
Many contemporary writers favor placing speech tags after a line of dialogue. For example:
“It smells wonderful in here,” said Kate.
This structure puts the emphasis on the dialogue, rather than the dialogue tag. The reader’s attention focuses on what the character is saying, and the speech tag works on a near-subconscious level to make sure they don’t get confused about who’s saying what.
You can also give the character an action after their dialogue:
“It smells wonderful in here.” Kate opened the oven and peeked inside.
This gives the reader a bit more context about what’s happening and makes the scene come alive.
How to punctuate dialogue tags
You may have noticed in some of these examples that the punctuation in a dialogue tag can change. Let’s take a closer look at how to format dialogue tags, as well as some alternative speech tag formats you might come across in literature.
Using double and single quotation marks
In North American literature, lines of dialogue are enclosed in double quotation marks, like this:
“I love this song.”
In European English, however, you’ll often see single quotation marks used instead, like this:
‘I love this song.’
For this article we’ll be focusing on using standard North American grammar.
If your dialogue stands alone without any speech tag (like just above), you’ll end the line in a period. If you’re adding a speech tag in the form of a verb that describes the dialogue—said, whispered, shouted, etc—you’ll end the line of dialogue in a comma just before the closing quotation mark, and start the dialogue tag with a lowercase letter:
“I love this song,” she said.
(Unless your dialogue tag begins with a proper noun, such as “Charlotte said”—always capitalize these!)
However, if you follow the line of dialogue with an action that is separate from the speech, you’ll end the dialogue with a period and begin the next bit with a capital letter, the same as if you didn’t use any tag at all:
“I love this song.” She reached over and turned up the volume.
Always include your dialogue’s punctuation inside quotation marks.
So far so good? Now things are about to get a little weird. What happens if your dialogue ends in a question mark or an exclamation point? Strangely enough, the rules for capitalization actually stay the same:
“I love this song!” she said.
“I love this song!” She reached over and turned up the volume.
North American English does use single quotation marks too. As we saw in one of our earlier examples, single quotes are used for dialogue within dialogue. This is called “nested dialogue.”
“In the words of Shakespeare, ‘To thine self be true.’”
“I was on my way out when I overheard him say, ‘I’ll meet you at our old spot.’ What old spot was he talking about?”
In European English, the rules for nested dialogue is reversed, like this:
‘I was on my way out when I overheard him say, “I’ll meet you at our old spot.” What old spot was he talking about?’
Sometimes you’ll see dialogue being set off from the rest of the text with em-dashes. This can create a vivid, cinematic effect in your writing; however, you’ll have to be very careful that your dialogue doesn’t blur into your narrative. Here’s an example from Roddy Doyle’s Oh, Play That Thing:
—I want an American suit, I told him.
—Suit? I had the rest of the anarchist’s cash burning a hole in the pocket of my old one.
—American, I told him.—A good one.
You can see how the dialogue tags—“I told him”—are kept deliberately simple, and the longer action is set apart on its own line. The em-dashes show us when the speech starts up again. However, this type of dialogue punctuation is very rare and experimental; the safest option is always to use standard quotation marks, like we looked at above.
Sometimes authors will experiment with using no distinguishing punctuation at all. This makes the story read very smoothly and intimately, like the reader is really there in person. However, just like using em-dashes, care must be taken to keep the dialogue and the narrative very distinct from each other so that the reader understands what’s being said and what’s being thought or described.
Here’s an example from The Houseboat, by Dane Bahr:
This have something to do with that grave robbery?
No sir, Clinton said. I don’t believe so. That was down in Cedar Rapids.
I see. Well. Ness leaned back and closed his eyes again. What can I do for you, Deputy?
Yeh get the mornin paper up there? The Tribune I think it is?
Looking at it right now, Ness said. He leaned forward in his chair and looked at the picture on the front page.
Even though this is written in third person narrative, you can see how each dialogue tag begins with a name—“Clinton said,” rather than “said Clinton.” This gives the reader a subconscious cue that the words are shifting from dialogue to description. Stripping away the punctuation of your dialogue like this gives the reader a feeling like they’re listening in on a private conversation in the next room.
Experimenting with alternative dialogue tag punctuation can be a great way to stretch your comfort zone as a writer. However, clarity for the reader should always be at the forefront of your mind.
These two alternative punctuation methods are fun to work with, but they are very experimental and an unusual choice in modern literature. In professional writing, both fiction and non-fiction, quotation marks are the universal standard.
Other words for “said” when writing dialogue
Writers are big fans of using “said” for their dialogue tags, because it doesn’t draw attention away from what really matters: your story. But sometimes you might want to enhance your dialogue tag with another word to give it some more emphasis. Let’s look at different ways to say “said” in writing.
How to use verbs as dialogue tags
You may remember your primary school teacher telling you to look for other words for “said” in dialogue: whispered, shouted, chastised, sulked, muttered, screeched, sobbed… you can have a lot of fun digging up synonyms for “said” in story dialogue, but most of the time, less is more. You want your reader’s attention to be on the words that your characters are saying and the story surrounding them, rather than the mechanics of your dialogue tags.
However, there are times when using a different verb for your speech tag can enhance the narrative or convey new information. For example, compare the following:
“I hate you,” she said.
“I hate you!” she shouted.
“I hate you,” she whispered.
Each dialogue tag gives the line a slightly different feel. Because the words are so simple, “said” feels a bit empty and non-committal; using a different word gives the reader context for the words that are being spoken.
Now compare these two lines:
“Look at the state of your clothes! People are going to think you’ve been sleeping in a barn,” she chastised.
“Look at the state of your clothes! People are going to think you’ve been sleeping in a barn,” she said.
In this instance, the verb “chastised” is redundant because we can already tell that she’s chastising from what she’s saying. It doesn’t give the reader any new information. In this case, it’s better to fall back on “said” and allow the dialogue to do the (literal and figurative) talking.
When you’re considering using other verbs for your speech tag, ask yourself if it reveals something new about what the person is saying. If not, simpler is always better.
How to use dialogue tags with adverbs
Adverbial dialogue tags are where you use a modifying word to enhance your dialogue tag, such as “said angrily,” or “whispered venomously.” As with using other verbs instead of “said,” most of the time, less is more. However, sometimes using adverbial tags can contribute surprising new information about the scene.
Consider these examples:
“I hate you,” she said scathingly.
“I hate you,” she said gleefully.
“I hate you,” she said nervously.
Each adverb tells us something different about what’s being said. But do you need them?
Telling someone you hate them is already pretty scathing, so you probably don’t need to show it a second time with your dialogue tag. Saying it gleefully is very different in tone, and makes us wonder: what’s this person so happy about? What makes this moment special to her? Saying it nervously is different again, and raises questions about the scene—is this the first time it’s been said? What are the consequences for saying it?
“Gleefully” is probably the strongest adverb choice in these examples, because it’s at odds with what’s being spoken; it gives the line a whole new context. “Nervously” is nicely specific too, but you can also find other ways to show nervousness in the character’s actions, which might feel more natural and organic to the reader. “Scathingly” doesn’t really tell us anything new about what’s being said.
When considering adverbs for your dialogue tag, again ask yourself if they communicate something new to the reader that the dialogue doesn’t show on its own. If it does, then ask yourself if it communicates that something in the most natural, efficient way possible. You can explore different ways of conveying these emotions or details in your scene to find which one works best for your dialogue.
Dialogue tags vs. actions tags
Dialogue tags, as we’ve seen, begin with a speech verb—usually “said,” but sometimes other words like “whispered,” “yelled,” or “mumbled.” They work to identify the person who is speaking.
Action tags, on the other hand, work like a dialogue tag but aren’t directly connected to the line of dialogue. They can be related, but they stand independently. Just like dialogue tags, action tags work to identify the person speaking. These are especially helpful if you’re writing a scene with three or more people, where things can get confusing pretty quickly.
Additional speech tags examples
Here’s an example of action tags and dialogue tags working together:
“So here’s how it’s going to go down,” said Donny. “We’ll meet at midnight, after the cinema closes.”
Mark took a sip of his drink. “What about the night patrol?”
“The night patrol is a sixteen-year-old kid on minimum wage.” Roger leaned back in his chair. “You worry too much.”
“I’m not getting rough with a kid, Donny.”
“Then let’s hope he’s smart enough to stay out of the way.” He took a sip of his drink too, then stood up. “I’ll see you both tonight. Get the car ready.”
Let’s break down what we’ve done here. We have dialogue with a few variations: one dialogue tag, three action tags, and one freestanding line with no tag at all. The first dialogue tag, “said Donny,” establishes who the first speaker is. Then a new action tag introduces a second speaker, Mark. This works well because then we don’t have two “saids” in a row and it flows naturally for the reader. In the next line, a third speaker comes in, so we give him an action to make sure the reader knows who’s speaking.
As we get to the fourth line, the reader already understands enough about the scene to know who is speaking, so we can leave this one on its own. The next line doesn’t identify the speaker by name—we use “he”—but it’s a direct response to the line before it, so we know who it is. The action tag breaks up an otherwise long and unwieldy line of dialogue, and turns the scene in a new direction: the group is breaking up until later. Each speech tag gives the reader little clues that make the dialogue and the scene come alive.
“Said she” vs. “she said”—what’s the difference?
When you’re writing a dialogue tag, is it better to write “Jane said,” or “said Jane?” This is something that a lot of new writers get caught up on, and technically, either one can be correct. Most contemporary literature favors the subject followed by the verb—that is, “Jane” (the subject) “said” (the verb). If you’re using a pronoun—he, she, they—this is the only way it works grammatically. However, using a proper noun after the verb—“said Jane”—is more common in older literature and is still in use.
In general, “she said” is a better fit for modern stories. If you’re writing historical fiction or something influenced by archaic myth and fantasy, either one is acceptable. You can play around with both in your writing to see which one feels more natural in that moment of your scene.
When to use he said/she said vs. he says/she says
The distinction between when to use he said/she said vs. he says/she says often confuses newer writers. The answer to when to use one or the other goes back to the tense your story is written in.
Stories written in the present tense will use present tense speech tags like “he says” and “she says,” while stories written in the past tense will use past tense speech tags like “he said” and “she said.” You might use other tenses throughout your story, so always keep an eye out for the tense you’re currently using and adapt your speech tags accordingly.
Dialogue tags: Examples
Here are a few more examples of ways to use a descriptive dialogue tag to inspire your writing.
1. Hotel Magnifique, by Emily J. Taylor
One of the older girls shoved a lock of greasy blonde hair behind her pink ear. “That advertisement is a tease. It would be a miracle if any of us got a job.”
I straightened. “That’s not true.”
She shrugged as she turned away. “Do what you want. I wouldn’t waste my time.”
“Think she’s right?” Zosa asked, her delicate mouth turning down.
“Absolutely not,” I said, perhaps too quickly. When Zosa’s frown deepened, I cursed silently.
In this example, three girls are talking about a job advertisement. In the first three lines, action tags are used rather than dialogue tags, showing not only the action but the personality and feelings of the people speaking. After the first three lines, which all begin with action tags, the next two lines lead with the dialogue instead and use simple dialogue tags to identify who’s talking.
2. The Paris Library, by Janet Skeslien Charles
“A fourth of the Library’s subscribers are Parisian,” I countered. “They need French-speaking staff.”
“What will people think?” Maman fretted. “They’ll say Papa isn’t providing for you.”
“Many girls have jobs these days,” Remy said.
“Odile doesn’t need to work,” Papa said.
“But she wants to,” I said softly.
“Let’s not argue.” Maman scooped the mousse au chocolat into small crystal bowls.
Here, a family argues about a young woman’s desire to work at the library. The first two lines use descriptive tags in place of “said.” These enhance our understanding of the particular character, but because this can get cumbersome quickly if overused, the next three lines use “said” to let the spoken words shine through. Finally, the writer drops the dialogue tags in favor of an action tag which turns the scene in a new direction.
3. The League of Gentlewomen Witches, by India Holton
“Several people have been killed,” Mrs. Pettifer reported. “It’s quite shocking.”
Miss Plim pecked irritably at her tea. “Something more shocking happened yesterday.”
“Indeed?” Mrs. Pettifer flicked over another page. “You smiled at someone?”
“No. I was in Twinings and that Darlington woman walked in. She acknowledged me politely with a nod.”
At this, Mrs. Pettifer finally looked up, her velvety eyes growing wide. “Not Miss Darlington, the pirate?”
Here, two women gossip over a newspaper. The first line uses a speech tag, then two lines use action tags to identify the speaker before the next line stands alone; the reader has grown comfortable enough with the back-and-forth dialogue to recognize the speaker of the next line. Then, the following line begins with an action tag that marks a turning point in their conversation.
You’ll notice in all of these dialogue tag examples above that writers favor patterns of three. Three uses of “said” in a row, three action tags, three similar speech tags before shifting into another method of identifying the speaker. Three is a comfortable number for a reader, but if you go on using the same devices for more than that the reader will begin to notice how repetitive they are, which will pull them away from your story. This is a good trick to keep in mind when formatting your dialogue.
5 rules for using dialogue tags
To wrap up, let’s review some dialogue rules and best practices for use of dialogue tags in your story.
1. Limit overuse of dialogue tags
How often should dialogue tags be used? As with many aspects of the writer’s craft, when working with dialogue tags in your story, less is more. See how often you can get away with not using any dialogue tags at all (keep in mind sets of three, as we looked at above). Space out your dialogue tags so that they don’t take up too much real estate on your page. Your reader should be focusing on your story, not your story mechanics.
2. Use a dialogue tag when it’s unclear who’s speaking
Dialogue tags are used first and foremost for clarity. Use them when you need to remind the reader of who’s saying which line. You won’t need to use them as often when your dialogue is only happening between two people; if you have a group of people all talking together, you’ll need to use them a bit more to keep everybody straight.
3. Vary the positioning of dialogue tags
In our examples above, you’ll see that sometimes the dialogue tag comes at the beginning of a line of dialogue, sometimes in the middle, and sometimes at the end. If you always put your dialogue tag in the same place, it can get monotonous for the reader. Experiment with different placements for your speech tags to keep the dialogue fluid and fresh.
4. Vary the type of dialogue tags
Although we love the classic “she said” and “said she” dialogue tags, relying on these all the time can start to weigh down your story. Try alternating between dialogue tags, descriptive action tags, and a few alternate verb dialogue tags here and there to keep your story from feeling too routine. These can illustrate your characters’ body language and help reveal their underlying motivations. It will make your story feel more present and immersive than if you used “said” in every single line.
5. Avoid using adverbs too frequently in dialogue tags
That being said, using adverbs as part of your dialogue tag should be done with a very light hand. Used sparingly, they can give dimension to many characters and their experiences; however, too many can make your story feel overburdened and sluggish. Use adverbs and alternative verbs for your dialogue tags only when they enhance the dialogue. Wherever possible, allow the words of the dialogue to speak for themselves.
One last question—is there a difference between “dialog” vs. “dialogue”?
It’s common to be confused when it comes to the differences between dialog vs. dialogue. The two are homonyms, and they’re interchangeable depending on which country you’re in! In the United States, the word “dialogue” is the preferred word for referencing a conversation or exchange of communication like what you’d find in a story, while the word “dialog,” at least in American English, is used more specifically when referring to computing—like a “dialog box” that appears on your computer to communicate something to you. So remember to use “dialogue tags” rather than “dialog tags”!
Hopefully that clears up any dialog vs. dialogue confusion!
Effective dialogue tags will elevate your story
So small and easily overlooked, yet such an essential part of any story, dialogue tags and speech tags are one of the most basic tools a writer has at their disposal. By mastering the use of dialogue tags and the rules of dialogue in a story, your story will take on new dimension and feel that much more real to your readers.