Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags. Or Snags.  I took the long route when it comes to tagging dialogue.  Under the mistaken belief that the snappier, more interesting and unusual my tags, the better dialogue, ergo the better story I’d create.  After attending a couple of workshops, to my horror, I learned that the list of fifty plus creative ways of expressing ‘he said, she says’ I’d purposefully, specifically and methodically accumulated were off base and actually operated as snags to my prose.

For the reader, ‘said’ slips in, rolls over and then disappears. Whereas shout, snort, sniff, yell, call, cry, croon, coo, hiss, demand, snap, snipe, reply, respond, exclaim, proclaim, groan, moan, protest, grunt, whine, mumble, grumble, murmur, mutter, utter and all the other cute tags I’d compiled were more often than not operating as story trip lines, stopping the flow and forcing an emotion on the reader.

No doubt it can be difficult to express the intended tone in dialogue with only ‘said’. After all when speaking it’s how we say something that imparts the emotion beneath the words.  That’s why it’s so tempting to use a tag. But if something else is needed, then add an action with the words, like a visual body language. Instead of ‘he sniveled’, have the corner of his mouth curl up or his nose twitch as though smelling something unpleasant.

Another method is to use the next line of dialogue to show the reaction to the tone. Instead of ‘she shouted’, the next line could say it all – “You don’t have to yell”.

Tags become a trap because they tell the reader how to feel instead of showing. The emotions in dialogue are best conveyed by the words inside the quotation marks and the actions surrounding them, not the tag.

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About Rose Gonsoulin

Rose Gonsoulin lives in the Sonoran desert with Chloe, Lucy and The Weasel. Like the poet, Wallace Stevens, she has spent the better part of her career in the Surety industry. Her first novel, Outside The Men’s Room, is available from Amazon. She is currently working on her second novel and a collection of short stories.


  1. William J. Nash-McAdam says

    I’ve always hated writing dialogue because of the seemingly required necessity to include the “he said” or “she said” tags. As a reader, I’ve always loathed the other descriptive tags so often used; as you stated, they interrupt the story. Plus it always seemed like the writer was trying too hard to be creative with all these other words. Even at a young age, it smacked of amateurism. The best way I’ve found to work around it is including the “he said/she said” tags in the first couple rounds of back-and-forth, then leaving it up to the reader to decipher the flow, which isn’t too difficult. This is mixed with occasional interspersing of names (if you have an extensive dialogue scene between the characters of Bobby and Alexis, for example, Bobby could say, “Alexis,…”. I do really like the idea of including other hints at the tone, such as “you don’t have to yell.” The emotions of the words, creative use, should be more apt to dictate the emotion in the scene than descriptive tags. Always show, never tell.

  2. Matthew Frederick says

    Another middle-road way to handle it is to express the change in tone through direct description of the action or by using an adverb to modify “said.”

    “Goats,” he said, raising his voice.

    “Goats,” she said, quietly.

    “Goats,” he loudly said.

    Not to be used a lot, but acceptable now and then, methinks.

  3. My method on this one is pretty simple. I ignore it until rewrite time. I usually type he said/she said on autopilot but I’ll find a ‘rasped’, ‘grated’, or even ‘purred’ here and there. They’re usually a little embarrassing and rarely survive a revision.