A Writing Journey

Dialogue Tags

Everywhere I look, people are making rules about dialogue tags. If you aren’t familiar with the term, it means words like said and whispered that come before or after dialogue. Let me tell you, some of these “rules” really tick me off!

First of all, writing isn’t a one-size-fits-all endeavor. There are as many different styles as there are writers. Who should be telling me how to write? Me. Sure, there are really good articles and posts about how to IMPROVE your writing, but strict rules aren’t going to do it.

Rule number one that irks me is “only use said.” On the one hand, I can see the value of this. It can help us be more conscious of showing readers how characters feel (by giving more description of their actions) and I will admit, I’ve read books that only use said and it doesn’t bother me, as a reader. By the same token, I love reading books that use all sorts of dialogue tags – I really think it helps to express the mood and tone. And, if someone is twenty feet away, they don’t speak at a normal tone (which is how said is in my mind) so you need something different (like called or yelled – though yelled to me expresses a different emotion as well).

Another “rule” that I dislike is not using tags that cannot be done. As in, don’t use tags like hiss, growl, snarl, and so on. Many of the people who are making up these rules say that we shouldn’t use these tags because people cannot hiss, growl, or snarl. While that is up for debate (I mean, we don’t growl like dogs do but we have equivalent vocalizations), these tags can add to the story. If the scene is supposed to be quick-paced, saying that a character hissed something is much better than trying to describe minute facial expressions (though of course, I’m sure someone excels at describing those expressions and keeping the tension of the scene up – but it isn’t me).

The last “rule” I will mention in regards to dialogue tags is that many people say don’t use adverbs to modify the tag. Adverbs can be overused, I won’t deny it. I overuse adverbs, I know that. But I also know that they can be useful. For instance, sometimes people talk quietly without whispering or murmuring or muttering. Sometimes we have to use adverbs to successfully set the mood and tone.

My point is, as I said in a previous post, don’t let someone else dictate how you write. Learn everything you can about the craft, but when it comes down to it write the way you want. It will feel more natural and it will make you feel better about yourself.

Take care, fellow travelers.

Comments on: "Dialogue Tags" (18)

  1. The rule I use is ‘When in doubt, ‘said’ works fine.’ I agree that only using said can lose some of the visuals readers get from words like ‘snarled, questioned’ or ‘grunted.’ Said is my fallback and I use it about 80% of the time. But as you said, characters don’t always have conversations in a normal talking voice. Sometimes you need to YELL!

  2. Reblogged this on QuillTwist and commented:
    I agree completely with these thoughts on dialogue tags. As a rough guide, I tend to use ‘said’ 8 or 9 times out of 10, but of course a little more or a little less either way won’t hurt and if it’s what makes your writing flow, do it!

    • Thanks for the reblog! I’m glad you like the post. I use said a lot as well, but I try not to rely too much in dialogue tags in the first place – though when I do I like to use a variety. 🙂
      Take care,

  3. OMG, I couldn’t just use “said”. That’s just insane. It’s repetitive and very tell instead of show. And if you follow rule one, it’s pretty much a given that you’re going to break rule three to make up for it.

    • Very true that it gets boring. And though I disagree with the “rule” I think the point of it is to not use dialogue tags so much and instead show the actions accompanying the words, which would contribute to the showing rather than telling.
      Take care,

  4. I’m pretty flexible with how I approach dialogue tags and don’t mind reading a book that uses only said/never does, as long as it flows well and doesn’t seem jarringly out of place. The only one that does bug me is when a question is asked and the dialogue tag is “said”. For some reason, that’s a huge pet peeve for me, but that’s just me. I say the writer should use what feels right so that the writing doesn’t become stiff or forced.

    • As a reader, not much bothers me, but as a writer I don’t like people trying to tell me how I should be writing. I agree that said instead of asked is very annoying!
      Take care,

  5. I definitely see what you’re saying. We shouldn’t do or not do things with our writing just because someone tells us we can’t. I’m rereading one of my favorite books right now, and it uses all sorts of dialogue tags instead of “said.” That being said, I am one of those people who recommends not using tags that can’t be done and not using adverbs. Once you learn the rules and are a strong enough writer to move beyond those, that’s one thing. But so many new authors and writers use tags like this as a crutch. They aren’t using words carefully enough and writing dialogue well enough that readers will be able to understand what’s going on without those tags. That’s where the problem comes in and why I do think the rules are important, even if they seem annoying.

    • Ah, I agree with you that new writers need to learn basic rules (grammar and punctuation come to mind) but I don’t think dialogue tags (or adverbs, really) need to be enforced like this. I learned as I went. I know I have to edit or adverbs, I frequently edit dialogue tags, but that is only to keep in line with my own voice, not to conform to rules. I think we learn as we go what works and what doesn’t. And more importantly, we learn what works for us. I think writers are more picky about books anyway. I know when I was younger, I never paid attention to any of this I’m books. Some readers will like, some not, and some went know the difference. What matters is that you write the way that feels right to you.

      • You bring up a good point about younger readers. I’m currently rereading one of my favorite series from childhood, and I’m noticing all these things I get annoyed about now that I know the “rule,” but when I was reading them for the first time, I didn’t even notice! We do get too caught up in rules many times.

  6. […] prevalent being “ONLY USE SAID”, which I don’t agree with at all. But then I read this post which basically took the words right out of my head, so I’ll just leave it here for you to […]

  7. Well said Emily, the main thing is to let your writing flow, much the same way it does when you talk. 🙂

  8. Broken those rules consistently for all of my books. I think a variety helps with atmosphere and description. That’s just me though.

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