The Purpose of Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags (indicating who said it) function the same as dialogue: they reveal character.
Think about what we learn from these tags:
In this dialogue tag, we learn the teacher has a good relationship with her students and feels comfortable being sarcastic with them.
From this tag, we know that Hassan is intimidated by his father. His words, the dialogue itself, didn’t tell us that. But the tag did.
Three Common Dialogue Tag Pitfalls
While dialogue tags can be necessary, newbie writers tend to make these glaring “mistakes”:
- Over-tagging (this is a big pet peeve of mine)
- Using adverbs in the dialogue tag
- Not varying the tags
Take a look at this example from a narrative I wrote—edited to show bad dialogue tags. (This narrative is a true account of an incident that happened while I was volunteering in Ecuador.)
Pitfall #1: Over-tagging
Was it really necessary to tag every line? No. When two people are talking back and forth, it is clear who is talking next. Over-tagging ruins the flow of the dialogue, making it choppy and elementaryish.
That whole dialogue exchange didn’t need tags at all because we know the first person to speak is Jorge (since it starts by saying I let him explain). After that, the two characters just go back and forth. The line break indicates who is speaking next.
However, in my narrative, I did include dialogue tags a few times throughout the exchange in order to add personality and reveal action.
Only tag when
- We need to know who said it
- The character took a specific, need-to-know action while talking
- We learn information about the character from the tag
But with the last two situations, you could chose to do an action beat rather than a tag. So even then, you don’t have to tag.
If, for example, a character slinked down onto the couch and that is important to know because it reveals the character feels defeated, then you could include a tag. Or you could just turn the tag into an action beat instead.
Pitfall#2: Using adverbs
Along with over-tagging, that poorly written dilaogue exchange includes adverbs (-ly words). Most of the time, you should remove adverbs from your dialogue tags.
Could you imagine going to see a play and after certain lines of dialogue, the author stands up and says, “Ok so just now the character said that angrily,” or “the character said that annoyingly”?
It would take you out of the experience. The same thing happens when you’re reading.
So let’s look at some of those tags that included adverbs:
In this case, the reader should know I was feeling incredulous. However, I can show that without saying that by adding to the dialogue.
Revised: “Are you serious? Then why did you just tell Lindsay it was whiskey?”
I added “are you serious,” which indicates I doubted his words, showing incredulous.
In order for the reader to see his personality and sense the frustration of the situation, I want them to know he said it nonchalantly, showing he doesn’t care that he gave me alcohol.
But instead of using the adverb, I could show that through an action.
Revised: “Yes, because I thought it was water,” he shrugged.
Shrugging shows his nonchalant attitude.
To show vehemently, I could add to the dialogue and add a tag with a clear action.
Revised: “But it was—alcohol,” I shouted.
By adding the em dash, the reader feels the pause and the emphasis on the word alcohol. By adding the action “shouting,” the reader can picture the forcefulness and knows I said it vehemently.
Just like with a play, the words you use in your dialogue and the action a character took while saying it helps a reader understand the tone. Now granted, in a play, we can actually hear the character say it, but you can show tone without saying it.
Pitfall #3: Not varying the tags
As with all things, variety helps to spice things up. You can vary your tags by the placement and the level of tag being used.
You can place your tags at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end. Mixing up where you place the tags when you have to have several in a row will help smooth out the dialogue.
In my example, every tag came at the end. If you have a section where you need multiple tags in a row, you can vary the placement, which will help with the flow.
There are three levels of tags.
Level 1: Hassan said (who said it)
Level 2: Hassan mumbled (who + how said it)
Level 3: Hassan said, looking down at his feet (who + action)
When we need to know who said it, then a level 1 tag works. If it is clear who said it, you should not use a level 1 tag. Throughout your story, use level 2 and level 3 tags as needed to reveal the character and move the action along.
Also, remember to use action beats from time to time rather than level 2 and level 3 tags to lessen the amount of tags overall.
My Narrative with Better Dialogue Tags
Jorge said that he wanted to talk, to explain, and being who I am, I let him.
“I did not know it was whiskey; I thought it was water.”
“Are you serious? Then why did you just tell Lindsay it was whiskey?”
“Because I realized it was whiskey.”
“Oh, so when you went to the bar, you actually ordered me water?” I said letting the sarcasm seep in to my voice.
“Yes, I got you water.”
“But it was—alcohol,” I shouted.
He nodded. I looked at Lindsay to ensure myself this was real. She just shuffled her feet and shrugged. I was on my own, but at least she too recognized the madness. With the music from the club echoing my beating heart, I took a deep breath. Then emphasizing each word I asked, “Ok . . . Did you order alcohol or water?”
“I ordered alcohol, but it was for me, not for you.”
“Then why did you give it to me?”
“Because you were thirsty.” Jorge shook his head, looking at me as though I were stupid.
“So you knowingly gave me alcohol?”
“No, I thought it was water.”
After staring at him for a moment, I walked away. Plopping down on a curb, I rubbed my forehead, willing the tears away. I sat there in silence as the city lights blurred around me. Then I looked up at him, wiped the rogue tear from my eye and demanded he see reason and admit what he had done: “How could you think it was water when you just said you ordered alcohol?”
However, this just started the exchange all over again as he stuck to his story: “Because it was for me, not for you.”
“But you gave it to me.”
Jorge shrugged. “Yes, because I thought it was water. Katie, I think you are incredibly beautiful, and so smart, and I respect the fact that you don’t drink or mess around with boys, even though I desperately want to kiss you. You have to know, I was not trying to do anything; if I were, if I didn’t respect you, I would have tried kissing you already.”