What Are Dialogue Tags? Plus Infographic: 150+ Words for "Said"
“Dialogue tags” is one of those writerly terms that sounds more complicated than it actually is. In fact, you’ve almost certainly used dialogue tags in your writing at some point, even if you’ve never heard of them before!
But that’s the trouble with these funny little phrases: how can you use them in your writing when you’re not entirely sure how they work? That’s where this article comes in. Read on for your ultimate guide to dialogue tags — including tips on how to use them in an effective manner and our curated list of 150+ different tags you can use.
What are dialogue tags?
Dialogue tags are the phrases in your writing that indicate who’s saying what. For example: “I can’t wait to read this article,” Rita said. In this case, “Rita said” is the dialogue tag. It identifies the speaker and clarifies the action.
Dialogue tags come in many forms. It’s often a simple pronoun + verb combination, though you can also use description to let the audience know who’s speaking (more on that later). The classic tag is the phrase we just used: “[character] said” or “said [character].”
Of course, there are plenty of other words for “said” that can be inserted in its place, such as:
And many more! In fact, we've created an infographic with over 150 dialogue tags that you can use instead of "said." 😲
But while alternative tags like these can be helpful, you don't want to overuse them — this can lead to overly ornate travesties of dialogue. So how do you know exactly which dialogue tags to use and where?
This leads into our next section: 5 key tips to using dialogue tags.
How to use dialogue tags (with examples)
1. “Said” is still your best friend
As we mentioned, there are plenty of “said” synonyms that you can use when tagging, but that doesn’t always mean you should. “Said” is a staple of dialogue tags for a number of reasons: it’s short, it’s simple, and it doesn’t distract too much from the dialogue.
Basically, it gets the job done, making it the ideal accompaniment for 90% of your characters’ conversations. One of the biggest misconceptions about dialogue tags, especially among young writers, is that every tag phrase should include a different verb. Such tactics result in passages like this:
“What are you doing here?” he demanded.
“What do you think I’m doing here?” she inquired.
“You know this isn’t going to work,” he sneered.
This level of specificity is clearly unnecessary. You can already tell from what they’re saying how these characters are speaking; the verbs clobber you over the head with it. You might end up using one of these tags in the final passage, but you certainly wouldn't want to use all three.
That’s why the word “said” is your best friend. Again, 90% of the time, “said” is all you need for your dialogue tags. The other 10% of the time, you can use neutral alternatives: words like “asked” and “replied” that also won’t distract your reader too much. A good rule of thumb is to never spend more time thinking up tags than you do on the actual dialogue — otherwise, your reader will end up sidetracked, too.
2. If not “said,” make sure it fits perfectly
During a particularly exciting or dramatic scene, you may want to use an alternative tag — a word other than “said” or something similarly neutral.
However, if you use a strong verb in a dialogue tag, make sure that it precisely matches the tone of the character’s speech. This is where our list really comes in handy — it's categorized by emotion and situation so you know exactly which one to use! Again, just enter your email above to download it.
In any case, this tip might sound pretty obvious, but editors can attest that odd verbs in dialogue tags are all too common. For example:
“I never want to see you again!” he exclaimed.
This might seem like a good place for a character to exclaim, since we know that means saying something loudly. However, the connotations of “exclaim” are a bit murkier — an exclamation is usually a shout of surprise, but not necessarily a negative one. Someone might exclaim, “Happy birthday!” or “What a beautiful rainbow!”
So is this really the best word to reflect the feeling of that statement? Probably not. Better options might be:
- “I never want to see you again!” he bellowed.
- “I never want to see you again!” he roared.
- “I never want to see you again!” he snarled.
Any of these verbs would stay true to the tone of the dialogue, effectively emphasizing its message. But remember, you just want to emphasize, not clobber. The key to unusual tags is moderation.
“I compare alternate dialogue tags to a strong spice,” says Ryan Lanz, who runs the writing craft blog A Writer’s Path. “A little is nice, but too much will spoil the batch. If the flavor is too powerful, it tugs the reader away from the story.”
3. Insert them only when necessary
Speaking of over-seasoning, not only should you keep alternative dialogue tags to a minimum, but you should try to minimize dialogue tags in general. You don’t need a new one every time someone speaks, especially if it’s a two-person conversation:
“What do you want to do today?” Mia said.
“Maybe we could go see a movie,” Rick said.
“Oh, I really want to watch that one about World War II,” she said.
“How about a comedy instead?” he said.
Even using the simple tag “said” starts to get distracting when it’s repeated over and over. In situations like this, unless the conversation continues for an unusually long time, you really only need a single dialogue tag at the beginning. After that, the reader can follow it themselves, as long as they know which characters are present.
“What do you want to do today?” Mia said.
“Maybe we could go see a movie.”
“Oh, I really want to watch that one about World War II.”
“How about a comedy instead?"
More than two people talking
It gets a bit more complicated when there are three or more people talking to each other. In this case, you want to use a distinct dialogue tag for every person at least once. Then try to make the content of the conversation clear enough that the reader can still track it without too much difficulty.
“What do you want to do today?” Mia said.
“Maybe we could go see a movie,” said Rick.
“Hey, let’s see the new Mission Impossible!” Jenna interrupted.
“I was thinking comedy. Besides, I thought they had stopped making those."
“No, I just saw a poster up for the new one last week! I’m dying to see it.”
“Ugh, really? Now I regret asking what you guys wanted to do.”
Of course, the cardinal rule of dialogue tags is to always make clear who's speaking. Sometimes this can be hard, especially in scenes with many characters or when something chaotic is happening.
If you’re trying to use tags sparingly but you find that only makes your dialogue more confusing, go ahead and place them wherever seems necessary. Ideally you’d use as few dialogue tags as possible, but it’s better to overdo it on the tags than for the reader to have no idea who’s speaking.
4. Experiment with placement
This is something you can do to keep your dialogue tags fresh and interesting without resorting to overblown verbs. Though so far we’ve only used tags at the end of dialogue, you can also put them at the beginning or in the middle! It requires slightly different punctuation, but pretty much all you need to do is re-order your original phrase to accomplish this.
Let’s return to our very first example: “I can’t wait to read this article,” Rita said. This could become:
Rita said, “I can’t wait to read this article."
Or, if you want it to sound more dramatic:
“I can’t wait,” Rita said, “to read this article.”
Again, it’s an easy fix for repetitive tags. Try to stay conscious of how you’re using them, and if you find that too many of your “he said, she said”s (so to speak) are landing at the end of your dialogue, feel free to mix it up!
5. Use description as dialogue tags
The final way to create dialogue tags in your writing is: don’t use them at all. Or rather, use something else to serve the same function — specifically, description.
Using description to indicate who’s speaking is a subtle yet powerful means of tagging your dialogue. Experienced writers employ this technique frequently, and anyone can do so once they understand how! Here’s an example of how description might be used as a dialogue tag:
Sara gazed around the room as she paced, trailing her fingers over the furniture. She stopped and looked over her shoulder at Sam.
“Are you sure that taking this stuff is a good idea?”
We can clearly tell that Sara is the one talking based on the description: it’s all about her and what she’s doing. At the end, we also get a subject for her to address (Sam).
You can also put the dialogue first, followed by the description to clarify:
“We’ve got to catch him! Come on guys, hop in!” Jason hurriedly started the truck, which made a noise like a broken blender.
Or you can even have the description in the middle of two pieces of dialogue:
“Oh my God, what happened in here?” Alicia had just come through the doorway and stood frozen in her tracks. Her expression was a mask of horror. “It looks like a tornado hit!”
Basically, you can put this descriptive “tag” anywhere you want in relation to the dialogue: before, after, or in the middle. As long as there’s something to demonstrate who’s speaking, as well as to what or whom they’re referring, that’s all you need.
Dialogue tags are a vital tool, and one that every writer should know how to use correctly. Hopefully, this post has helped you understand how to use tags to clarify who’s speaking, as well as how to avoid distracting from what’s being said. Remember, the dialogue is the crown jewel here — but the tag is the solid pedestal that keeps it from falling. 💪
What are your best tips for dialogue tags? Let us know in the comments!