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Writing 101: Learn About Dialogue Tags. Writing Tips and Creative Ways to Work Around the Word “Said”

Written by MasterClass

Last updated: Nov 8, 2020 • 2 min read

Dialogue is how your characters express themselves verbally—usually in conversation with each other. It might look like this:

    “What do you want for dinner?” Jack asked his friend John. 
    “I don’t know—you decide,” John replied.

The dialogue tag is the phrase that lets the readers know who is saying what, and how they’re saying it.



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What Are Dialogue Tags?

A dialogue tag (or speech tag) is a phrase that precedes, breaks up, or follows a bit of written dialogue and establishes who the speaker is and often how they are delivering the dialogue.

How Do You Properly Punctuate Dialogue?

Here are the three most common ways to punctuate dialogue seen in literature:

1. Quotation marks. In English language literature, dialogue usually appears in quotation marks, as in the example above. If you put your dialogue in quotation marks, note that punctuation—like periods, exclamation points, and question marks—go inside the quotation marks. Also note that you should use a comma of a terminal punctuation mark when a piece of dialogue is part of a complete sentence including a dialogue tag. For example: “I’m going out to buy some milk,” she said or “Stop,” she said. “I already bought milk yesterday.”

2. Em-dashes. Some writers use an em-dash to notate a line of dialogue, like this:
—What do you want for dinner? Jack asked his friend John.

3. No punctuation. Some writers don’t notate dialogue at all. For example, Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago treats his dialogue just like the rest of the narration, like this:
Jack asked his friend John, What do you want for dinner, and John replied, I don’t know, you decide.

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How Do Dialogue Tags Serve Your Writing?

Writing dialogue requires a good deal of information be communicated to help your readers understand who is saying what. At the bare minimum, good use of dialogue tags keeps your reader from getting too disoriented or confused.

Some writers believe that "said is dead" and prefer to use more descriptive words or to put an adverb before the word “said.” But generally speaking, you can write an entire short story or novel using only “said,” without having to resort to more descriptive verbs like “shouted,” “seethed,” or “consoled.”

Stephen King, whose famous opinion that “the road to hell is paved with adverbs,” finds them especially annoying in dialogue attribution. (Tags like “he said cheekily” drive him crazy.) In suspense writing specifically, Angels and Demons author Dan Brown advises you to keep your language from jarring the reader out of the story. This means sticking to “he said” and “she said,” and keeping adverbs or other words for “said” to a minimum.


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Are Dialogue Tags Always Necessary?

Not every piece of dialogue requires a tag. If your reader can be reasonably expected to assume who is speaking, you don’t have to use dialogue tags. This is especially true during lengths of ongoing back and forth dialogue between two characters. Oftentimes quotes will follow one after the other, with a line break to denote a change in speaker.

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