Dialog Tags 101

If you don’t know what a dialog tag is, it is the part of the story where you write “she said“.

Some people say you should never use dialog tags. I say that is absurd. Without dialog tags, we don’t know who is speaking. But that is not really what “they” mean when they say never. They mean you should only use “said”.

Really? Only “said”? Well, they are trying to eliminate  a common problem for new authors. Both in punctuation and use. By saying “never” do it, they try to prevent over usage of other things.

Here are some examples of punctuation done they way “they” generally prefer:

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi!” she said.

“What are you up to?” Andy said.

“Nothing,” Mary said.

Andy said, “Why not?”

Mary said, “I don’t know.”

Notice all of the “saids”? Some writers use only that dialog tag. It becomes repetitive quickly. It is also largely invisible to the reader. We see that word so often, we don’t notice it. Kind of like the word “the”. We really only notice “the” when it is missing, misspelled, or misused. A way to break that up, is to leave it out. But in doing so, you need to be able to make sure the reader knows who is saying it. If I continue the conversation from above, Andy and Mary are talking turns talking, so it is pretty obvious who says the next line, and I can leave off the dialog tag.

“Do you want to be up to something?” 

“Maybe.” Mary blushed.

Notice in Mary’s response, there is no comma after “maybe”. Mary blushed is not a dialog tag. I did the same thing with Mary as I did with Andy, I left off the dialog tag. Mary blushed is the next sentence. It is an action. If I were to write it as-  “Maybe,” Mary blushed.  -then I have the problem of having replaced the word “said” with “blushed”. Blushed is not a synonym for said. I cannot blush words.

This is the thing the people who say “never” want you to avoid. New writers have a tendency to have people “smile” words, “frown” words, “wink” words, “blink”, “grimace”, …. You get the idea. These are the reasons the “never” people say “never”.

It can really kick me out of a story if a character does something physically impossible, like blushing words.

Beyond that, what’s the big deal?

The problem is the “never” people have become overly rigid about it. Some of them feel that even “asked” is a bad dialog tag. Why would they say that? Well, because the question mark (?) at the end of the sentence already shows it was a question. But “asked” is not a bad dialog tag. It is a good one. It just needs to be used in moderation, like all of the others “they” despise.

They feel the other common mistake is the dreaded “-ly” word. Used in dialog in can seem strange.

“How about a picnic?” he asked eagerly.

“I would love that!” she answered breathlessly.

Now what’s wrong with those? Well… a little goes a long ways. It is a poor shortcut to describing the characters and the actions. And if a writer does that all the way through a story, it becomes horribly repetitive. Often, the story is much better if we are shown Andy is eager, rather than being told like that.

All in all, the “never” people are, in my opinion, generally wrong. But they have a valid point. Overuse of action dialog tags, especially strange ones, can ruin a story. For example, if a character always retorts, or sighs, or begs, it gets to be too much to tolerate for even the most voracious of readers.

But, I feel, contrary to the “never” people, that sometimes expressive dialog tags can be used, if you are are careful and don’t go overboard.

Some words can be whispered. Some can be shouted. Just not all of them.

Oh. Well. Some of them just agreed with me. That was weird. Watch me lose them now. I feel sometimes people do hiss words. Even if their are no s’s in the words. Ever heard a cat hiss? No s’s there. All h’s.

Here’s where I lose the rest of them. I can grunt words. I can sigh them, laugh them, giggle them, belch them, retort them,slur them, and oh so many more wonderful things I can do with the sounds my mouth makes!

But some people don’t like that.


Because too much is too much. And I agree.

Your characters should not always sigh their words. Every answer need not be a retort or a rebuff. All angry words are not growled.

But some are.

Use them sparingly. Make it worthwhile to the character, the story, and the reader when you choose finally have someone spew words. Just don’t let yourself say they blushed them.


I am going to repeat the above dialog and ask that you look at one more thing. The punctuation. It is very important. It shows where the dialog stops and the actions and descriptions start. It is also a stumbling block for many new writers.

“Hi,” he said.

“Hi!” she said.

“What are you up to?” Andy said.

“Nothing,” Mary said.

Andy said, “Why not?”

Mary said, “I don’t know.”

A common mistake I see is:  “Hi!” He said.  This is one sentence in spite of the exclamation point in the middle of it. It should be:  “Hi!” he said.

Another is:  “I was wondering,” he said. “If you were going to come back.”  The character is saying only one sentence, so it makes no sense to break his words into two. It should be:  “I was wondering,” he said, “if you were going to come back.”


Now remember, a lot of this stuff on dialog tags is just my opinion. There are no “real” right or wrong rules, outside of the punctuation, but you take your chances wandering into uncharted territory.

Now don’t go throwing it in your editor’s face saying “Sam Knight said it was okay for people to sigh words!” Your editor will turn right back around and say “Sam Knight wasn’t the editor who used to be considering buying one of your stories!”

Everyone is different and money talks. No matter what you do, remember you have to know the rules to break them, and everything in moderation (even moderation).