Wednesday, April 4, 2018

How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags - Part 1: The Problem With Too Many

When reading fiction, dialogue tags help cue the readers in on which character is speaking. However, when a writer uses too many dialogue tags—and when they’re used incorrectly—the dialogue is being told to the reader rather than shown. If you use too many dialogue tags within your manuscript, you may risk coming across as an amateur to an agent or editor.

So how are readers supposed to know which character is speaking if dialogue tags should be avoided when possible?

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Here’s how: Writers should show who is speaking rather than tell the reader who is speaking. They should also show how a statement/question is spoken rather than telling them how it was spoken.

In movies, the viewer does not need dialogue tags. Why? Because they’re shown which character is saying what. They also know how they’re saying it.

The dialogue tags should be almost invisible in our manuscripts as well. In other words, our characters should be so alive in readers’ imagination that they, in a sense, forget that they’re reading a book. However, this effect is impossible to accomplish if we use a dialogue tag for each line of dialogue. Those dialogue tags are constant reminders that practically scream to the reader, “This scene isn’t really happening; it was only written by the author!”

Rather than telling the reader that the character said something “angrily”, the action/emotion beats we use should bring the reader to that conclusion. By doing this, we’re inviting the reader to use their imagination rather than telling them how they should imagine the speech being spoken.

It’s okay to use dialogue tags sparingly within your scenes—especially when it’s unclear who is speaking. When necessary, we should use the tag “said”. The word “said” tends to be invisible to readers. By doing this, we'll allow the scene to continue unfolding before their eyes without bringing attention to the dialogue tags. We never want to bring attention to dialogue tags, as this is an interruption to the story and its flow.

However, too many dialogue tags in a row—even the word said—can come across as choppy. When dialogue is choppy, then the scene can no longer play out like a movie in the mind of our readers. To avoid this, we should weave in other fiction elements into our scenes to make it come to life, such as description, interior monologue, action/emotion beats, and exposition.

For every writing rule, there are always exceptions. Although editors will advise that you stay clear of dialogue tags, it is occasionally okay to use the following: 

  • Asked 
  • Shouted 
  • Mumbled 
  • Whispered 
  • Muttered 

 Why? Because these dialogue tags are almost invisible, just like said tags. They’re simple and often necessary. When used sparingly, these tags won’t distract from the scene that takes place.

So how is it possible for us to write effective dialogue tags that, 1) don't distract readers from the scene, and 2) show rather than tell?

We'll discuss the answer to this question in next week's post.

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Have you ever been distracted by too many dialogue tags in a book? Is it a struggle for you to write effective dialogue tags in your manuscript? Let me know in the comments!


How to Write Effective Dialogue Tags - Part 1: The Problem With Too Many @TessaEmilyHall #writingcraft #amediting


  1. This was really good!!! Thanks for posting!!

  2. I used to use so many dialogue tags in my writing, but now I rarely use them at all, unless they help convey a feeling or are descriptive. Great post, Tessa! =)

    Micaiah @ Notebooks and Novels


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