A dialogue tag, also known as a speaker attribution, is a short phrase that identifies a speaker (and sometimes how the person speaks).
“Pass the pickles,” Dan says.
“Dill or sweet?” Donna asks.
“I guess I’ll go for dill.”
“Good choice—the dill ones are homemade, courtesy of your sister-in-law.”
In this short conversation, we know that Dan is the one who wants pickles and that Donna is offering him a choice of two types. Simple and straightforward, the verbs “say” and “ask” work well—especially in moderation.
Since only a couple of characters are speaking here, adding a “he said” or “she said” to every line would prove tiresome and irritate readers, who are quite capable of tracking the identified speakers. If this conversation continued for another page, however, adding too few tags would probably exasperate readers, forcing them to count lines to determine who is saying what.
While an occasional “replied” or “repeated” may also do the job, most of the time “say” or “said” achieves the right effect. And what is that effect? Elegant transparency. Like punctuation marks, dialogue tags are mechanical devices that provide readers unobtrusive direction. We need to know which character is speaking, but we don’t want to lose sight of the conversation itself. Since the verb “said” is so ordinary, we scarcely notice it.
What about the order of the tag? Typically, “I said” works better than “said I.” The latter may come across as awkward, stilted, pretentious, or old-fashioned. Like most writing guidelines though, the order of speaker and tag may depend upon the effect the writer wants to achieve, such as a particular rhythm or the sense of a sentence.
Helen DeWitt often upends this conventional tag order in her short story collection Some Trick:
“Pittsburgh?” said Mrs. Margaux.
“I know,” said Gil. “I know. But see.”
(from “On the Town”)
Similarly, the first four paragraphs of “Famous Last Words” introduce four characters by using the tag + speaker order: “says Brian,” “says Jane,” “says X,” and “say I.” This reversal causes the stress to fall upon each name; the rhythmic drumbeat thereby focuses our attention on each new character, helping us to distinguish one from the other and making each feel distinct as he or she arrives on the page. There’s also a bit of play going on. The slightly singsong effect mirrors the purpose of their repartee: the characters are involved in an “intellectual conversation,” a battle for best lines, famous last words, a game.
Ultimately, like mile markers, dialogue tags should discreetly guide readers through the more compelling scenery of the conversation. Keeping it simple and writing “I say” instead of “say I” will usually well serve both your story and your readers.
What about different verbs for tags? Oftentimes, a beginning writer, perhaps remembering a teacher’s admonition to use a variety of action verbs, will pepper a conversation with several different tags.
“Sweet pickles turn my stomach,” he groused.
“Poor baby,” she cooed.
“Julius Caesar gave pickles to his troops,” the professor intoned.
A less confident writer may also add explanations via adverbs.
“Is it true that pickles are full of antioxidants, probiotics, and vitamins?” he asked inquisitively.
“Cleopatra ate pickles as a beauty aid,” she said authoritatively.
“Must we keep talking about pickles?” they asked plaintively.
In dialogue tags, adverbs and superfluous action verbs generally distract and call too much attention to themselves. Readers become more aware of the writing than of the conversation. That’s not to say that characters should never agree, jeer, tease, whimper, glower, cry, whisper, or grumble. In fact, these verbs may effectively convey a character’s emotion, tone, pitch, and volume—in other words, how a character speaks.
“You ate twenty pickles?” she hooted. “Well, I ate twenty-one!”
“My homemade pickles won first place at the county fair,” he sneered.
But a glut of emotive dialogue tags can slow the pace and convince readers the writer has just disgorged a thesaurus.
Explanatory tags also risk patronizing readers or demonstrating mistrust about their ability to comprehend. Instead of telling readers what a character feels, let the dialogue do the work. Indeed, if an adverb tag or some explanation (e.g., “he said with despair”) seems necessary, then the dialogue probably needs revision.
First draft: “I need more pickles,” she said with frustration.
Revision: “Seriously? I’m ten weeks pregnant, craving gherkins, and you tell me you ate the last one?”
In the revision, the character’s frustration spurts out. Rather than merely read about it, we feel it. We also learn more about this character in an organic way. In fact, dialogue succeeds in engaging readers by accomplishing more than one task at a time, by simultaneously characterizing, scene-setting, providing exposition, advancing action, foreshadowing, revealing the past, and/or revealing the theme.
If the dialogue itself fails to give much clue about how something is said, supply the character with an appropriate action.
First draft: “You don’t understand,” she said with some desperation.
Revision: “You don’t understand.” She snatched the hamburger from his plate and thrust the pickle into her mouth.
As the above example shows, dialogue tags aren’t always necessary. In fact, elements of a character’s speech, such as diction (choice and use of words), rhythm, and syntax (the order of words in a sentence), can provide enough evidence for readers to identify different characters.
“You are looking at a very dull survival of a rather gaudy life, a cripple paralyzed in both legs and with only half of his lower belly. There’s very little that I can eat and my sleep is so close to waking that it is hardly worth the name. I seem to exist largely on heat, like a newborn spider, and the orchids are an excuse for the heat. Do you like orchids? … They are nasty things. Their flesh is too much like the flesh of men. And their perfume has the rotten sweetness of a prostitute.”
—General Sternwood in Raymond Chandler’s The Big Sleep
“All the time! Wicked place. Well, maybe I’ll see you round them gates sometime. It was nice to meet you, sister. Brother Tyrone, I’ve got to chip, man, my gal’s waiting for me.”
—Millat Iqbal in Zadie Smith’s White Teeth
“‘Aren’t they ugly words, Cynthia, that those people think up—process, internalize, depressive whatever. It’d make me depressive to go around saying those words all day.’ She held up the plastic bag she carried. ‘D’you see the sale they’re having at So-Fro?’”
—Olive Kitteridge in Elizabeth Strout’s Olive Kitteridge
Finally, as with flavor, fashion, life, and, dare I say, pickles, dialogue benefits from variety. Interspersing beats, or bits of action, in the form of facial expressions, gestures, and movement, can enliven dialogue and prevent the overuse of dialogue tags.
“I know a good one,” Dan declared.
“That’ll be a first,” his brother said.
“Go on,” Donna said encouragingly.
“Two kosher dills walk into a bar,” he said with uncertainty.
Dan plunked his glass on the counter. “I know a good one.”
His brother laughed. “That’ll be a first.” He gulped his beer and belched.
Donna scooted onto the edge of her rocker and clasped her hands. “Please, go on.”
“Two kosher dills walk into a bar …” Dan drew a finger to his lips and frowned. “Or was it two cornichons?”
The beats in the revision—actions, gestures, and facial expressions—telegraph and reinforce the characters’ emotions. Dan’s uncertainty now emerges from the ellipsis, as his speech trails off, and from his gesture and facial expression.
Varying the placement of dialogue tags can also influence how readers hear a scene. For instance, placing a dialogue tag mid-line …
“I thought I remembered that joke,” Dan said. “So much for my stand-up comedy career.”
… creates a slight pause and helps readers hear a change in a character’s mood or voice.
- Use dialogue tags as needed to help readers keep track of who is saying what.
- Use “said” whenever possible.
- Typically, “I said” works better than “said I.”
- Use adverbs and action verbs in dialogue tags sparingly and judiciously.
- Avoid explanatory tags. Let actions reveal a character’s emotions.
- Intersperse beats to enliven dialogue and prevent the overuse of dialogue tags.
- Vary the placement of dialogue tags.
Remember, like a good pickle, the lowly dialogue tag accomplishes much in a small, discreet, and effective way.