By Joel Shulkin

Dog tags, luggage tags, and name tags all demonstrate ownership. Dialogue tags, or speech tags, demonstrate ownership of dialogue. Consider the following scene:

Jane finds Dick in the living room.

“What’s wrong?”

“What do you mean?”

“I can tell by your face something’s wrong.”

“Nothing’s wrong. Let’s watch TV.”

Now answer this: Who appears troubled? Who wants to watch TV?

Maybe Jane noticed Dick sulking. Or maybe Jane shuffled into the room, raising Dick’s concern. Let’s try dialogue tags:

Jane finds Dick in the living room.

“What’s wrong?” said Jane.

“What do you mean?” said Dick.

“I can tell by your face something’s wrong,” said Jane.

“Nothing’s wrong. Let’s watch TV,” said Dick.

Now read it again. Do you need every tag? Let’s take another example:

“Knock, knock,” said Tom.

“Who’s there?” said Jerry.

“Butter,” said Tom.

“Butter, who?” said Jerry.

“Butter close the door. It’s cold,” said Tom.

After the first two lines we know the speaking order. If the writer keeps reminding us, it gets annoying and disrupts flow. Let’s try fewer tags:

“Knock, knock,” said Tom.

“Who’s there?” said Jerry.


“Butter, who?”

“Butter close the door. It’s cold.”

Once you’ve established order, you don’t need tags again until a new character speaks. Keep in mind, though, that dialogue affects story pacing:

“Hey,” Dick said. “Who do you think you are?”

“I think I’m the guy who’s taking this parking spot,” Bob said.

“Oh, no, you’re not.”

“Oh, yes, I am.”

“What’re you gonna do about it?”


Could you feel the pressure? Uninterrupted dialogue suggests rapid-fire discussion--great for an argument or interrogation, but what about a first date?

“You want popcorn?” Jake said.

“Sure,” Sarah said.

“Good movie, huh?”

“Yes, it’s great.”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

It moves too quickly to feel the tension. Can tags slow it down?

“You want popcorn?” Jake said.

“Sure,” Sarah said.

“Good movie, huh?” Jake said.

“Yes, it’s great.” Sarah said.

“Can I hold your hand?” Jake said.

“Sure, go ahead.” Sarah said.

Suppose you want Sarah to be shy and Jake is worried Sarah will reject him. A novice might say, “I know, I’ll use adverbs.” Here’s what results:

“You want popcorn?” Jake said anxiously.

“Sure,” Sarah said reluctantly.

“Good movie, huh?” Jake said carefully.

“Yes, it’s great,” Sarah said hesitantly.

“Can I hold your hand?” Jake said finally.

“Sure, go ahead,” Sarah said thankfully.

Helpful? Can you actually visualize Sarah speaking reluctantly or Jake speaking finally?

Now the novice says, “I forgot to never use the same word twice. Look how I repeated ‘said’.” So we get this:

“You want popcorn?” Jake muttered.

“Sure,” Sarah whispered.

“Good movie, huh?” Jake pronounced.

“Yes, it’s great,” Sarah agreed.

“Can I hold your hand?” Jake inquired.

“Sure, go ahead,” Sarah acquiesced.

Better or worse? Imagine someone tapping your shoulder non-stop for two days straight. You’re irritated initially, but over time you stop paying attention. That’s how readers skim past the word “said.”

When you use clever alternatives, the reader has to stop and read each one. Which is more important to the story: the dialogue or how Jake pronounced it?

Readers want to forget they’re reading a story. They want events to unfold before their eyes as if they’re inside the action. When you use “creative” dialogue tags, you remind the reader it’s just a story.

The best way to use dialogue tags is to avoid using them at all. How can you demonstrate emotion without tags? First, look at the dialogue. We use luggage tags because many bags look alike. If you had a one-of-a-kind suitcase, would you need a tag?

Good dialogue exudes emotion. Bland dialogue can’t be fixed by a tag. Let’s revisit Jake and Sarah:

“Sarah, I was wondering,” Jake said. “Uh, do you want some popcorn?”

“Sure, if you don’t mind,” Sarah said.

“No, not at all! Uh, hey, this is a good movie, isn’t it?”

“Yes, Jake, it’s great.”

“Yeah, great. Really great. Uh, Sarah?”

“Yes, Jake?”

“Can I hold your hand?”

“Sure, go ahead.”

Can you now picture Jake’s awkwardness?

As we mentioned earlier, uninterrupted dialogue feels rushed. This is when we use descriptive narrative. Body language speaks louder than words. Sometimes we may not have the right words, but our gestures speak for us.  Let’s see what happens to Jake and Sarah:

“Sarah, I was wondering…” Jake forgot what he wanted to say as he stared into Sarah’s eyes. He opened his mouth twice and then stared at the popcorn box. “Uh, do you want some popcorn?”

Sarah shrugged. “Sure, if you don’t mind.”

“No, not at all!” Swallowing hard, he held out the box. Her eyes met his as she scooped out a handful of popcorn. His gaze darted to the movie screen. “Hey, this is a good movie, isn’t it?”

A sigh escaped her lips. “Yes, Jake, it’s great.”

“Yeah, great. Really great.” Jake drummed his fingers on his knee. “Uh, Sarah?”

“Yes, Jake?”

He drew a deep breath. “Can I hold your hand?”

A smile crossed Sarah’s lips. “Sure, go ahead.”

Now can you see how Jake changes as he overcomes his fear or Sarah as she grows impatient, but then relaxes when he shows initiative? And there are no dialogue tags! Do you miss them?

Sometimes you can’t avoid using a tag, such as for simultaneous dialogue and actions. For example, maybe you want Sarah to shrug and speak at the same time:

With a shrug, Sarah said, “Sure, if you don’t mind.”

Again, Sarah said, not Sarah insisted or Sarah implied or Sarah acquiesced.

Look at your own work. Circle every tag and ask: Do I need it? Does it further the story? Can I make the dialogue stronger? Can I use gestures instead of tags?

Should readers recognize your name or the quality of your work? So why not let the dialogue speak for itself? Your characters will thank you for it.

Joel:  My fiction and poetry have appeared in joyful!, Daikaijuzine, StoryTeller Tymes, and the Caper Literary Journal. I also won a national contest for medical fiction. Contact Joel.