How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags are like clauses. If the actual line of dialogue is the meat of the sentence, these little guys hang somewhere around or within it and add information. But there are dialogue tags, and there are excellent dialogue tags. You want the latter, obviously.

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Don’t clutter your scene with dialogue tags, let what’s being spoken take center stage.

When I’m reading manuscripts, I always note some dialogue tag issues. Here are some of the most common, so you can play along at home and edit them out of your revision.

Avoid Dialogue and Tag Redundancy

Redundancy in dialogue tags is a big issue, as anything redundant in your manuscript sticks out like a big old zit in a prom photo. Go back through your manuscript and see if you’re saying anything twice in a single line… once in your dialogue, another time in your tag. Hint: this is where most of your ickiest adverbs will be. Examples:

“I’m so angry, I could spit!” she growled, nearly snorting fire from her flared nostrils.

Alex’s hands flew to blot at his crimson cheeks. “I am so embarrassed!”

“Oh yeah? What’s it to you?” she said, testily.

These are technically not bad attempts at writing dialogue. But they are redundant. In the examples above, the action or adverb basically echo what is conveyed in dialogue. If we separated those tags from the dialogue and used either the description or the dialogue alone, we would still convey the same emotions. Be careful not to repeat yourself (like I just did).

Don’t Use Dialogue Tags to Choreograph Action

Writing dialogue sometimes feels like doing blocking for a play or directing actors in a movie. You have these characters in your head and they’re moving around the place you’ve imagined for them. In real life, we take pauses in our speech, we fiddle with our keys, we put a tea saucer down then pick it back up again (if we’re classy enough to drink it out of fine china).

You want to make sure your reader gets what these characters are physically doing in space, right? You want them to see your characters like they see actors in a movie. Sure, but when you do it too much, it really drags your dialogue down. Here’s an example of one short, continuous snippet that starts to read like choreography because of all the dialogue tags (sorry, indentation and blogging do not go together):

“I don’t know, I mean, he’s got to come out of there sometime,” Suzie said, ripping a bite out of her turkey sandwich with her perfectly white teeth.
“I gueff,” Chris said, his mouth full of burrito. He swallowed it down. “I guess.”
Suzie chased her bite with a sip of Diet Coke from her dewy wax cup. “It’s the third time this week Biff’s shoved him in that locker.”
Chris reached into his pocket and checked the time on his phone. “It’s been about an hour already.”
Suzie arched an eyebrow. “What if he runs out of air?”
“Impossible, there are at least a dozen vents.” Chris put his phone away and folded his hands in his lap.
Suzie pushed her chair away from the table, leaving her sandwich nearly whole on its red checkered wrapper. “But you know he has asthma!”

What’s going on in this scene? What are the characters saying? Do we even really care? I don’t. I couldn’t keep track of the dialogue because there was so much business in between. The only actions we really needed, I suppose, are Chris taking out his phone to check the time and Suzie pushing herself away from the table. The rest could be trimmed back significantly.

Don’t Stuff Adverbs in Dialogue Tags

This one needs no introduction or explanation. For the last time, folks, let’s lay it all out there: adverbs are like corn dogs. You think they’re a really good idea, then you eat a couple and you realize they’re much better in moderation. Don’t cut all adverbs out of your manuscript, but prune… aggressively. They don’t add much — only in special circumstances do they work — and they are usually a sign of a writer not trusting their reader.

Dialogue conveys things. That’s the whole point of it. It tells us who a character is, how they talk, what they think, what they say aloud vs. what they keep inside, what people are planning to do, what people did, how people feel about things, etc. etc. etc. Good dialogue is very information-dense without hitting you over the head. If it is well-written, the reader learns new things without even realizing.

Adverbs and the other kinds of errors that clutter your dialogue tags just get in the way of good dialogue and make it too… obvious. That’s not what you should be aiming for. If you’re seeing a lot of adverbs, it’s time to really examine your dialogue and make sure you’re conveying what you need to in the actual scene and not leaning on adverbs as a crutch.

How to Write Excellent Dialogue Tags

Some things to remember about how to write dialogue:

  1. Make sure your tags aren’t redundant.
  2. Let the dialogue speak for itself and don’t rely on adverbs or choreography.
  3. When you’re writing dialogue, or anything at all, really: trust your reader.
  4. Make your dialogue information-dense but not obvious.

“Now take this to heart and prosper!” she said, triumphantly, her fingers clacking on the keys of her MacBook as she wished her readers well. (Ba-dum bum ching! See what I did there?)

Hire me for fiction editing. I will comment on all facets of your manuscript, including, yes, those pesky dialogue tags!

25 Replies to “How To Write Excellent Dialogue Tags”

  1. These are especially useful reminders for those of us who have written plays – I *always* have a tendency to put in too many stage directions. That’s why revision is so important!

  2. Edward Crane says:

    So true. This is a valuable lesson to learn. It frees up your novel and gives the reader a sense of enjoyment and confidence. There is nothing worse than an unreadable chunk of text.

  3. I’m a playwright about to attempt to rewrite a play into a novel, and I have no idea how to do a dialogue tag. All I ever put is a name above the line, and let the actors figure it out from there (other than in the instances where the line NEEDS to be said the opposite way than it seems.) I’m worried that I’ll not put enough information, since I don’t really believe in stage directions unless they inform the action…can you address the problems of putting to little info in, and how to avoid that?

  4. cosmicdustbella says:

    This just helped me with my story I had to write for english. My teacher keeps saying that I could do better, but never says on what exactly. Maybe its cause I’m repeating myself too much. I tend to make my stories slow by saying the same thing over and over again I guess, I never noticed until now.

  5. Good post! Dialogue/tag redundancy is so annoying to read, lol. I hope I’m not often guilty of it…. And the bonus in the recap is great — sometimes I have a character’s name in there, yet it’s so rarely needed. Maybe for clarification now and then, but otherwise it just sounds so unnatural.

    Thanks for the great post. 🙂

  6. When I first started writing, I practically stuffed my stories with adverbs. I relied on them way too much. Of course, at the time, I didn’t realize this and thought I was doing well. I never paid much attention to the quality of my writing – I just wrote for fun.

    Then, when I got serious about it, I started to notice all the mistakes. I’d open up one of my first stories and feel horrible about how poorly written they were. This is when I started to become insecure about it, and probably when all the problems started. Now it’s hard for me to write without checking back to see if something’s off. And if something is, I’ll try to fix it, fail, and stop completely.

    And back then, I repeated names a lot too. Now it seems I’m not using them enough. But I’m determined to keep going, and this post was very helpful. So thank you!

  7. wow, this is really informative. thank you for writing this. As a writer, one of the things that i struggle with the most is dialouge because it tends to sound really “scripty” and it’s difficult for me to out character into the tags. i think this really will help.

  8. Great advice, this is super important stuff to remember, but it’s so easy to forget while writing. This is the sort of thing that’s always there in published novels, but it’s easy to be careful about in your own writing.

  9. Very helpful article. Tho I’m not a author, I have to write essays for school sometimes and this gave me some excellent tips. Will remember this tips the next time I write! =D

  10. I love what this says about choreography. I’ve spent a lot of time this past year doing theater and must say that it’s made me think a lot more about written action, thanks to all of the blocking we had to do. It’s interesting because as seen with the example included here, being too specific about every single action happening is unnecessary and distracting. I think that often actors/actresses also prefer less of this sort of padding as it allows them freedom to interpret the character and fill in the gaps with their own idea of the character’s behavior. In both cases, as long as the dialogue makes the emotions clear and the character(s) is (/are) already well-established, there isn’t a need for every action to be spelled out.

  11. I especially enjoyed the pointer on choreography. I wrote a scene recently that was centered around the dinner table, and I realized after reading this how much I needed to insert some prose between the dialogues.

  12. You had me at the dewy wax cup. Is it Solo or Dixie?

    This is an excellent post. I’ve beta read a few stories that exude bad dialogue. Makes for an excruciating read!

    – Julie

  13. LOL Julie! I agree. I got so distracted with what the heck a dewy wax cup was I forgot what they were talking about.

    Great examples Mary. Thanks.

  14. Julie and Susan — I, er, planned it that way, to illustrate my point. Yes, that’s it. 🙂

  15. Lynne Matson says:

    I’m picturing Dixie (maybe because I live in the South?) but since I’m stuck on the cup, that’s a problem, since I should be sucked into the story not the tableware. Great example. Thanks for keeping these older posts. This one in particular was really helpful, and I’ve used it to trim hundreds of words (especially tags) from my first MS. Thanks Mary! Your blog is a fantastic resource for writers.

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