Writing great dialog–Part 3: tags & attributes

From Rick:

In Part 2 of this series I said I was going to cover slang and dialect this time. Well, I decided to move that to a later post, primarily because I want to do more research on that.

Before I get started with this week’s topic of dialog tags, I’d like to note that nearly every blog on writing that I’ve come across, at some point will tackle the subject of dialog. Many books on writing discuss it, and some have been devoted exclusively to it. Most general workshops on writing will cover it. So, why am I doing it yet again?

Well, despite there being so much devoted to the subject, all too many new writers seem ignorant of it. Since, as I mentioned previously, much fiction writing contains a high percentage of dialog, it’s therefore one of the most important topics in writing.


What is a dialog or speech tag? Essentially it’s designed to tell the reader who is speaking at a given time. A secondary use is to indicate speech attributes that tell how the dialog is delivered (shouted, whispered, calmly, softly) and sometimes to show actions accompanying the dialog.

You’ll find a lot of advice about not using tags for these secondary purposes, or at least that you should keep such usage to a minimum.

Let’s explore speech attributes first. Many feel that if you have to tell the reader how the line is spoken, then you, as a writer, haven’t completely done your job.

“Get back here!” Bob said, shouting.

An exclamation mark usually indicates a raised voice, so why does the tag need to repeat it? One could argue that, in some cases, saying “Get back here!” Bob said. might feel weak. If so, consider a better the following construction.

“Get back here!” Bob shouted.

We hear all the time that we shouldn’t use attributive adverbs in tags: he said calmly; she said angrily. Yes, I know you’ll find copious examples of these in published books, but as Scott and I constantly remind you, just because it’s been published doesn’t mean it’s the best way to write. Sometimes, though, adverbs can serve a purpose, such as in humor or when you want to overstate. In most circumstances, it’s best to use adverbs and attributes in dialog tags sparingly and only when you can’t make the point with the dialog itself. One example: “Get back here!” she whispered.

Here’s a reference that backs up and expands on these points.


Before we leave this topic know that in modern writing, “said” generally follows the noun or pronoun (“John said” instead of “said John”). The article link above says it’s okay to put “said” first, but most modern writers don’t, and doing so can make the writing feel “old.” Nevertheless, if this is your aim, by all means do so. You’ll sometimes see constructions such as “said John” used by some British authors. However you decide to write your tags, be consistent in your style and don’t use “said John” in some places and “John said” in others. I do recommend that you avoid using use “said he.” It tends to sound awkward in modern writing. In those cases, it’s acceptable to use “said John” and “he said” forms in the same piece of writing.

TIP: Keeping your dialog tags as simple as possible makes for smoother, leaner prose.

This brings us to another point. The use of actions in dialog tags is certainly acceptable–when not abused–but generally the action and the dialog should be kept separate. Which of the lines below reads better?

“Stop right there,” he said, drawing his gun.
He drew his gun. “Stop right there.”

The second case gives us a more immediate picture of the action. In the first line, we hear the dialog before we know about the gun being drawn, and this feels weaker than the second case where we see the physical threat followed by the verbal one.

Now, a word of caution is in order. Using either of these patterns repeatedly in a dialog passage is going to result in your developing a bad writing habit.

I recently reviewed a story where the writer fell into a habit pattern. I’ve extracted a passage below, but I removed the actual lines of dialog and replaced them with only quote marks and punctuation. After doing this, I realized that it’s an excellent technique to help a writer analyze his writing patterns. By isolating the tags and actions, you can see the problems. In this case, you see certain attributive words repeated. I should add that the dialog itself was decent, but the tag and attribute issues quickly overshadowed it.


“?” he asked calmly.

” ,” she said softly.

” ,” he said, looking into her eyes. “?”

She looked at him, then grabbed her purse, standing slowly.

“.” She smiled softly. He stood up slowly and walked toward the door, opening it for her.

” ,” she said quietly as she walked past him.

” ,” he said calmly. “?”

” ,” she said firmly then walked faster.

” ,” he said, watching her.

” ,” she said flatly and continued walking along the sidewalk.

” ,” he said bluntly. “.”

She stopped, letting out a long sigh of frustration.

” ,” she said calmly.

This sample also has some issues that Scott and I have discussed in previous blogs regarding the overuse of -ing forms.

Note that with only two people speaking, a few of these tags could have been eliminated for a smoother read because the back-and-forth delivery and paragraphing makes it clear that the speakers are alternating. As I demonstrated with examples in Part 2, when two people are speaking, tags are not needed every line.

Another trick for analyzing dialog is to remove all the tags in a passage, then read it through to determine where tags are absolutely necessary for clarity.

I want to make one final point here with regard to pacing. Use back-and-forth dialog, with few or no tags when you want a faster pace. Further, short lines of dialog will speed up the story, while longer ones will slow it down. Breaking up lines by putting the tag in the middle of the dialog and inserting actions will also alter the pacing.

Take some passages of dialog from one of your own stories and analyze them in these ways. Play with the pacing by adding or removing tags, shortening or lengthening the sentences, and adding actions at the beginning, middle, or end of the dialog. Then decide whether some of the experiments might serve your story better than your original lines.


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