Use dialogue tags wisely

Dialogue tags seem simple, but in practice they are a complex element that many new writers fail to appreciate. One characteristic that distinguishes great writing from good writing is the efficient and elegant use of dialogue tags.

Dialogue tags convey meaningful information, such as action beats.

One of the first things writers learn is that a simple he said is almost always preferable to more complex constructions like he pronounced or she observed. I only put that almost in there because I’m not one to forbid something outright. But really, the best writers just don’t do that.

dialogue tags
© Scanrail •

Some editors advise against using all speech verbs except said and asked, but that’s going too far. Speech verbs exist for a reason, and can be used judiciously. Just remember they are like spice. Use sparingly.

What do I mean by speech verbs? Here are a few: whispered, yelled, drawled. They describe the way a thing is spoken. That is, the manner of speech. There are only a few of them worth using.

Go to your thesaurus and look up the synonyms for said. Most of these are not useful. They are verbs like contend, orate, and profess. Don’t use those as tags. Just don’t. Look up “said bookisms” and vow to keep that sort of thing to a minimum.

“Tom Swifties” are right out.

Does that mean every line of dialogue should be marked by said? Of course not. You can often eliminate speech verbs entirely.

You’ll hear writing instructors warn against using adverbs with said, and this is a good piece of advice. He said quietly can be replaced with he whispered when appropriate, but what if he’s not exactly whispering? What if he’s lowered his voice so it doesn’t carry, but it’s still louder than a whisper.

First, whose viewpoint are we in? His? Then why not just put that:

He lowered his voice so it wouldn’t carry. “Will you please be quiet?”

What if we’re in someone else’s POV?

“Will you please be quiet?”
She could barely hear him.

Omit speech words when possible

A lot of new writers construct sentences like these:

“We’ve got to get out of here,” he said as he opened the door.
Shoving books into her bag, she said, “I’m going as fast as I can.”

Unless you really need to emphasize that the doing and saying are happening simultaneously—and you almost never do—omit the said and just use the action. We call this an action tag or beat.

“We’ve got to get out of here.” He opened the door.
She shoved books into her bag. “I’m going as fast as I can.”

The viewpoint character is always thinking

Unless you are writing in omniscient POV, the viewpoint character is always thinking. Therefore you don’t need to tag internal monologue. Let’s assume we’ve already established we’re in his POV:

“We’ve got to get out of here.” He opened the door.
She shoved books into her bag. “I’m going as fast as I can.”
He eyed the size of her bag. This was going to take forever.

No need to put he thought at the end. And he thought to himself is just redundant. Unless the character is a telepath, who else would he be thinking to?

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  1. Awesome post. I only recently started removing unnecessary dialogue tags from my writing. Sometimes it’s difficult to know what to get rid of!

  2. True! We need to be careful not to take too many tags out, because then readers can get confused about who’s speaking.

    1. Tell us about that! The bane of current fiction!

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