So you’re looking to write dialogue that not only sings but also makes sure your reader knows who’s actually “singing,” right? That’s where dialogue tags come in. They’re those small but mighty phrases that tell your reader who’s talking, and sometimes even how they’re feeling while they say it.

While it might be tempting to get fancy with your dialogue tags, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. “Said” and “asked” usually do the job just fine. The point is clarity, so if the tag doesn’t serve that purpose, it might be more distracting than helpful. On the flip side, you can definitely overdo it with tags. Ever read dialogue burdened with words like “exclaimed,” “bellowed,” or worse—adverbs like “said excitedly”? They can pull a reader out of the story pretty fast.

If you’re keen to keep your reader immersed in your world, consider swapping some of those tags for action beats. For example, instead of writing:

‘I don’t know,’ she said nervously,

you could go with:

She twisted her fingers. ‘I don’t know.’

Action beats serve double duty, attributing dialogue and adding a layer of subtext or character development. They’re good for showing instead of telling–by showing a characters action, your read will have to insert the blanks of that they’re feeling themselves, giving more nuance an emotion to the words at hand. Also, sometimes the dialogue itself is so strong or unique to a character that you can nix the tag. If it’s obvious who’s talking, why state the obvious?

Now, don’t get me wrong—variety is key. A mix of basic tags, action beats, and some strategically tag-free lines can make your dialogue scenes pop. It adds texture, making the conversation feel real and dynamic. Here’s a quick example from that classic work of Star Trek literature, First Frontier:

“Thank you,” Spock rasped as he levered himself up. The side of his face was bleeding now, laid open by the hand-sized overlapping scales on the remains of the trunk.

“Did you get Vernon out of there?” Kirk asked.

“Yes, sir. Roth is defending the cave mouth.”

‘Spock rasped as he levered himself out’ — tag & a beat. ‘Kirk asked’ — a simple tag. And the third sentence is unattributed, but from context, must be Spock speaking. See how the variety keeps you engaged?

So there you have it. Dialogue tags might seem like a tiny detail, but they can make or break the readability of your story. They’re like the background music in a movie—done well, you hardly notice they’re there, but they enhance the whole experience. Done poorly, they’ll pull you right out of the narrative.

By Jade

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