Labeling Your Dialogue

Argument at the Council of Elrond

A large conversation, like the discussion at the Council of Elrond, needs clear labeling.

This post is 1 in the series: The Mechanics of Dialogue

Writers use labels, known as dialogue tags, to tell their readers which character is speaking. Many writers think dialogue tags are part of their story’s narration. That’s a mistake. Tags aren’t narration; they’re a technical necessity like punctuation, font, and quotes.

We don’t want readers to contemplate our commas. Similarly, we don’t want them to notice our dialogue tags. Tags should do their job, then fade from sight and mind. Follow these guidelines to make them invisible.

Leave Tags Out Whenever Possible

Only label your dialogue when it’s necessary to know who’s speaking. If your dialogue includes only two characters, the reader will assume they are alternating lines. Label the first two lines to indicate who the speakers are:

“Why are you carrying a pair of stone glasses?” Aki said.

“They weren’t stone when I left,” Mia said.

“Wait – are you saying they turned to stone?”

“Yes, and it could have been worse. Remind me never to visit a gorgon.”

Leave tags out while the back-and-forth is easy to follow. However, if a characters speaks for more than a paragraph, consider adding a tag after the break. You can remove the end quote to show they aren’t finished, but readers may not notice this.

“Why are you carrying a pair of stone glasses?” Aki said.

“They weren’t stone when I left,” Mia said.

“Wait – are you saying they turned to stone?”

“Yes, and it could have been worse. When I got to the gorgon’s castle, I found over a dozen poor souls, completely petrified. It’s thanks to my glasses that I didn’t join them.

“Now everything looks fuzzy,” Mia added. “Remind me not to go out there again.”

If a third person enters the dialogue, you’ll need to start using labels of some kind. While the best dialogue makes each character sound unique, it’s usually too risky to rely on that alone.

When Appropriate, Use Actions as Tags

In many cases, you can still leave tags out. Instead, indicate the speaker with a character action that’s next to your line of dialogue.

Aki reached for her coat and frowned. “Why are you carrying a pair of stone glasses?”

“They weren’t stone when I left,” Mia said.

“Wait – are you saying they turned to stone?”

“Yes, and it could have been worse. When I got to the gorgon’s castle, I found over a dozen poor souls, completely petrified. It’s thanks to my glasses that I didn’t join them.

“Now everything looks fuzzy.” Mia rubbed her eyes. “Remind me not to go out there again.”

When your reader sees a name next to dialogue, they’ll assume that person has spoken. This means you have to be careful. If your action includes more than one person, it’s probably not a good label.

Mia hung her coat as Aki sat down. “Remind me not to go out there again.”

Now there’s room for confusion. It should be clear which character is the focus of your narration. To be on the safe side, refer to only one person.

Mia handed the glasses over. “Remind me not to go out there again.”

Don’t try to replace all of your labels with actions. It will change the pace and rhythm of your dialogue, so it should only be used where appropriate.

Use Tags That Are Bland

When you’ve added as many actions as you want and your dialogue still needs labels, it’s time to pull out the tags.

The go-to verb for tags is “said.” This should be in your tag 90% of the time. That’s because it’s so flavorless that it disappears. Sure, it might bug you, but that’s only because you’re writing the thing. Your readers won’t stare at your “saids” unless you call attention to them. They’ll be listening to your dialogue.

Once in a while, you can throw in another bland word such as:

  • asked
  • answered
  • responded
  • began
  • added
  • continued

Unless you are writing in a deliberately archaic style, the name or pronoun for your character should go first and the verb second.

Don’t Call Attention to Your Tag

There are two ways that writers blunder into making their tags visible.

  1. Including adverbs to describe the word “said.” New writers put in words like grudgingly, proudly, and quickly to add flavor to lines of dialogue. This is shouting and pointing at your tag, and it doesn’t set the tone effectively.
  2. Switching out “said” for a more creative verb like snarled, declared, or inquired. It’s understandable that writers do this; replacing a bland verb with a strong one is ideal – in the narrative. Again, the tag is not narrative. Resist creative replacements, and just use “said.”

These techniques become moderately better if they describe the physical act of speaking and do so in a way that feels standard and natural.

“We have to go,” Mia said softly.

“I know, but how?” Aki whispered.

If you’re going to do this, your description needs to be as important as the dialogue itself. And if it’s that important, you might as well make an action out of it.

Mia took a brief look at the gorgon and spoke softly: “We have to go. Now.”

Place Your Tags for Clarity and Subtlety

We have a dilemma when choosing where to put our tags: before the line of dialogue or after? We want our tags to be invisible; if we put them first, it will call attention to them. But few things are more annoying than reading a line, then being surprised by which character is speaking. So what should you do?

If the line of dialogue is short, your reader will probably see ahead to the speaker. Put your tag in back so you aren’t calling attention to it.

“We have to go. Now,” Mia said.

But if your line of dialogue is more than a couple short sentences and your reader might expect someone else to speak, putting your tag after it is risky. Instead, bury it in the middle.

“We have to go,” Mia said. “Any minute they’ll see their bird sculpture is missing, and they’ll realize we’re trying to break the curse.”

It’s better to put the tag early enough that it will be easily seen by readers. However, sometimes your dialogue will sound better if it’s in a different location. Think through the likelihood that your readers will become confused, and prioritize.

If you’re using an action as a label and it changes how your line would be interpreted, I recommend putting it first. Once your reader has imagined your line of dialogue, it’s too late to change the tone.

Aki leaned back and grinned. “Oh yes, unfortunate indeed.”

Otherwise, your actions can go before, after, or anywhere in the middle.

There’s nothing more critical to dialogue than who’s talking, but there’s a lot more to know. In upcoming posts I’ll discuss how to shape the sound, set the pace, and make tags feel less repetitive.

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  1. Saumya Kulp

    Saumya Kulp grinned. “Awesome post!”
    She shook her head and clicked her tongue. “Sounds like an awesome story! Can I borrow some of it?”

  2. Pteryx

    While this is largely good advice (and I’d add “replied” and “explained” as two good neutral options for mixing things up), there are a couple of points I’d personally add:

    1) Sometimes a dialogue tag that calls attention to itself can be useful for characterization or other purposes. If you want your readers to actually think about the fact that someone “recited” a line, implying that they’re repeating something they’re very familiar with, go ahead and use that.

    2) I wouldn’t personally say to NEVER use an adverb in a dialogue tag, but it’s something to be done only with extreme caution. The best times to use it are when there’s no variation on “said” that conveys the shade of meaning you need, and when you need two shades of meaning at once. Even then, think twice; it’s very easy to do wrong, such as by having the two words be redundant or contradictory.

  3. Bel

    Of course, when you think that you can’t use the word ‘said’ too often, you end up with “‘Snape!’ ejaculated Slughorn.”

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