Creative Writing Tip: Some Ideas to Vary Dialogue Tags

people-series-1038123-mOne of the most difficult things about writing dialogue isn’t just what to say, but how to let your readers know who’s talking. Dialogue tags–added phrases such as “he said” or “she asked”–can be useful, but they grow monotonous and boring when an author never varies them.

There are only so many times you can write “he,” “she,” or a character’s name in a dialogue tag.

Now, I can’t claim to be a master of the creative dialogue tag–and I don’t necessarily think it’s a good idea to be so creative that something as mundane as a dialogue tag draws attention away from the substance of the dialogue.

That’s the trick: you want something that isn’t your character’s name used over and over, and yet something that will read so smoothly it’s barely noticeable. Dialogue tags are not what you want to stand out in your writing.

That said, I’ve found there are ways to vary how you refer to the character who’s talking. You definitely have more solid and normal-sounding options than just a name or pronoun. When you’re struggling to vary your references in tags, consider using:

  • PROFESSION/RANK. You know: “the baker.” “The teacher.” “The captain.” I write sword and sorcery fantasy, so I can sometimes lean on “the prince,” “the king,” “the sorceress,” or “the guardsman.”
  • HAIR COLOR OR OTHER PROMINENT PHYSICAL TRAIT. In “The Crimson League,” I definitely refer to two characters, from time to time, as “the blonde” and “the redhead.” This can be particularly effective before your reader knows a character’s name; then he or she can be “the tall man” or “the bald man” or “the plump woman.”
  • A BIT OF CLOTHING.Β A number of us, from childhood, can remember Curious George’s friend “The man with the yellow hat.” Clothing is another good way to reference a nameless character (such as the man with the yellow hat.)
  • RELATIONSHIP TO THE NARRATOR OR POINT OF VIEW CHARACTER. Suppose Karen is your point of view character in a third person narration. Then you could refer to people as “Karen’s mother” or “Karen’s boss.” Other people might be tagged by relationship to someone important to Karen. For instance, if Karen is dating Jason, certain characters might be tagged “Jason’s sister,” “Jason’s mother,” or “Jason’s colleague” every now and then instead of by name.
  • SPECIES OR RACE (IN SCI-FI/FANTASY). The cyborg. The dwarf. The elf. The dragon. The troll. The Time Lord (Allons-y!)
  • AGE. If it makes sense given your narrator, you could totally tag somebody as “the child,” “the boy,” the girl,” or conversely, “the old man.”

Which leads me to one last precautionary point:

BE CAREFUL TAGGING BY EMOTION

There is a difference between tagging “the old man” and “the angry man.” Between “the young woman” and “the frightened woman.”

You don’t need to tag by emotion because it’s redundant.

Whatever your characters are saying should make clear that he is angry, or that she is frightened. That should come out in what they’re saying and how they’re saying it.

Maybe the angry man is cursing while making his point. Maybe he’s pounding a table while he’s yelling.

Maybe the frightened woman’s voice is cracking, or she’s speaking in fragments because she can’t think clearly enough to form a complete sentence. Maybe she’s repeating herself a bit.

Whatever the case, the dialogue itself makes clear what your characters are feeling, along with their physical reactions to the situation. NOT a dialogue tag.

My guess is that for a lot of people, there’s nothing new in this post. Still, I hope it works as a reminder and maybe a reference for when you’re struggling to figure out how to tag something.

(And remember: you never need to tag every piece of dialogue.)

What are your favorite ways to tag? Do tags bother you, so you use them in any form as little as possible? Feel free to share your thoughts.

If an interest in or problems with dialogue brought you here today, you might find my other posts on dialogue helpful. (They’re grouped here for easy reference).

And don’t forget you can sign up to follow my blog by email…. Just sign up at top right of the page, and you’ll never miss another post!

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45 responses to “Creative Writing Tip: Some Ideas to Vary Dialogue Tags

  1. Ha, that’s eerie! I’ve been thinking about this very topic this morning, as I was reading a novel and was astonished when I stumbled across a dialogue tag – because the author managed to hardly use them at all without overusing the character name or personal pronouns. The tag stood out immediately, but not in a bad way.
    I actually like sticking to the names, as long as it’s not too often. Untagged dialogue is great as well, as long as one still knows who’s speaking. Apart from that, I like to go by height, hair color or age, and sometimes by family relationship. Sometimes I feel it’s a necessary evil to ship around the names, but most of the time it’s fun to describe the characters in a different way πŸ™‚

    • Untagged dialogue is great. I love conversations between just two people, because then you don’t need dialogue tags nearly as often. The back and forth can generally make sense to a reader, especially when each character has a different style of speech.

  2. Often I also wonder how monotonous my work sounds when writing out a dialogue. Thanks for sharing these tips. They make a lot of sense πŸ™‚

    • Glad you found them helpful! The one nice thing about editing dialogue tags is that it’s really simple to do. They don’t influence the content of your passage in any major way…. it’s just all about flow and keeping things going in a way that blends in with everything else.

      • Sometimes getting the flow right is what I battle with. But I guess that depends on how creative I’m feeling πŸ˜‰

  3. If I want to vary the dialogue tags I generally use small action beats – for example ‘Varus tapped his fingers on the table’ rather than ‘Varus said’. It can also help blocking a scene, and break the dialogue up a bit, though for that reason I don’t do it during fast moving arguments or the climax of conversations.

    • I like small action beats too. Rather than a tag, you shut off dialogue and have a character act, like people do in real life, rather than sit or stand around like a statue πŸ™‚ It lends a sense of real life to a passage, I think.

  4. I’m in the editing phase in my WIP, and dialogue tags are on my list of things to check. Thanks for the reminders of different ways we can build in some variation with our dialogue tags.

    I’m avoiding dialogue tags as much as possible, often using action beats as Andrew describes. But action beats can be difficult to vary from one paragraph to the next. I don’t like using the same action beat twice in near proximity, and readers probably wouldn’t care much for it either. Repeated finger tapping is just as annoying in fiction as it is in real life. πŸ™‚

    Sometimes I skip the tags and the action beats entirely, and write a paragraph or two of pure dialogue, when I’m confident the reader will know who is talking. This is especially applicable when there are only two characters in the scene, and the other person was just tagged or had an action beat. But here again, I try to be careful. I don’t like stringing together too many paragraphs of pure dialog, because I hate it as a reader when I have to track back to figure out who is talking.

    • Great point about varying not just dialogue tags but action beats too…. Good writing is, to a great extent, about variety and change and flow, in a multitude of aspects. And I think the one place a lack of variety is most noticeable and therefore damaging is vocabulary.

  5. thank you, this is really helpful )

  6. I do these tags all the time. With the emotion tags, I’ve found that the milder emotions like frustration, exasperation, nonchalance, confusion, etc. work better than the big ones. They do bring a little extra oomph to a phrase where it can be said in various tones or if the character is unable to do a physical reaction. For example, it’s hard for a character to show frustration when they’re chained to a wall.

  7. Reblogged this on chrismcmullen and commented:
    These are handy ideas. πŸ™‚

  8. As I am hip deep in a dialogue heavy part of my current story, I nearly spilled my coffee clicking on this link. As a recovering ‘peddler of bombast’, I will gladly devour any advice that makes my writing seem either less intrusive or less full-of-sh-t. I am a work-in-progress πŸ™‚

  9. Thanks for sharing these great tips, Victoria. We can always do with learning more or being reminded of points we should know but have forgotten.

  10. It varies for me, I don’t use them if there are two very different characters so you know who’s speaking. I will definitely try using different tags like you suggested.

  11. Have you read BLINDNESS by Jose Saramago? He doesn’t use dialog tags very often, and if he does, he never uses the characters names, because no one in this book has a name. Also there are no quotation marks around dialog. When two people talk to each other there is only a comma when the person who talks changes, and a Capital letter to indicate that. It’s a little weird, but by what is said you are usually able to figure out who says it.

    • That sounds really cool! I haven’t read Saramago…. My specialty in grad school was Spanish lit, and I leaned more to Spain than Latin America and Saramago, of course, wrote in Portuguese not Spanish. I’ve heard tons about Saramago as a brilliant Brazilian author.

      I admit, as acclaimed as it is (and rightly so) I don’t tend to enjoy the stuff coming out of Latin America. That’s why I focused on Golden Age Spain…. but I might need to give Saramago a chance!

      I like the idea of “blindness” as a title and then reader feeling a bit “blind” by having no character names to help them make sense of things πŸ™‚

      • By all means, read it πŸ™‚
        The original title is “Ensaio sobre a Cegueira” = “Essay on Blindness” (and, no, I don’t speak Portuguese), and the German title is “Stadt der Blinden” = “City of blinds”. I wonder if the author, a nobel-prize winner btw, has any saying on the different translations of his work.

        • Cool! I’ve studied SOME Portuguese and I know Spanish, so I could probably read it in Portuguese with the use of a dictionary. I’d probably go for an English or Spanish translation though.

  12. Pingback: Weekly Candy: dialogue tags, fanfic and MORE DRAGONS | dirtybinary

  13. Reblogged this on Seumas Gallacher and commented:
    … more great tips for writers of all experience.. enjoy …

  14. Kurt Vonnegut (who knew a thing or two about writing) said the writer should always just use he/ she said. His view is that readers are word blind to these words and don’t notice them.

    • I’ve heard that from a number of great writers!!! I try to stick to “said” myself. Sometimes, though, I do like to not use a pronoun. Sometimes you don’t know who he or she is.

      • My style is not to use a link and where practical get the speaker to tell you who the other person is.

        For example.

        Zani looked at her new husband. ‘Xavier? Are you going to be a dummy your whole life?’

        Xavier kept working on his pad and didn’t look up. ‘Does that statement mean we really are married now Zani?’

  15. Cormac McCarthy rarely uses tags when writing dialogue, which is fine if the exchanges are short, no more than five or six lines,- any longer than that and it can be irritating if you lose track of who is saying what. I suppose it’s not too difficult with McCarthy’s characters as they usually speak in terse monosyllables, especially his male characters.
    Most of the writers that I have read on the use of tags seem to favour the ‘he said’ ‘she said’ method arguing that the reader hardly notices anyway if they are caught up in the exchanges and using other approaches can seem a bit contrived.

    • I’ve heard “he said” “she said” proposed for just the reason you say and try to stick to that as much as possible. But I do use other things too sometimes. Nothing that I feel sounds intrusive, of course.

  16. This is definitely something for me to consider, I’ve never thought about how an overdone dialogue tag can take away from the dialogue itself. Very good point. I always recall a writing class in fifth grade which had banned the word “said” simply because it is overused (and probably to get us young writers to think outside the can-be monotonous word). Ever since then I have not once put the word in my writing. I don’t think “Oh what’s another word for ‘said’…” I just keep it consistent with the tone/action- exclaimed, inquired, pondered, responded…
    When I read work that ONLY uses ‘said’ without much variation, the “he said, she said” becomes like a singer’s noticeable breathing in a song. It’s very distracting.

    Another point you made which I will definitely be looking out for when re-reading/editing is to not tag emotions. It is yet another case of the “show, don’t tell” principle. If the dialogue is done well, the reader shouldn’t need the “obvious” pointed out. Thanks for the advice!

    Also I agree with John on the long “back-and-forth.” It can be frustrating to keep track.

    • this is fun…. a fun debate! lots of writers like Stephen King ONLY use said to avoid sound pretentious and overplaying emotion. Their argument is that we glance over “said” and kind of ignore it. I tend to be of their camp…. too many long verbs used to tag dialogue, especially in a row, draw attention to themselves (the verbs) and not the dialogue.

      Just playing devil’s advocate here πŸ™‚ Every writer’s style is different. We all make different choices and every choice has benefits and drawbacks.

      • This is an interesting debate! But like you said, it really just comes done to style preference. I feel like dialog tags will not necessarily make/break the piece itself. If the plot is strong enough, characters round, the picture painted well and vividly, and the readers just overall have fallen in love…then they’ll look past dialog tags.

        It just comes down to a balance. Someone walking around in their underwear and someone wearing every piece of jewelry and accessory they could manage to find can both be distasteful or at least distracting.

  17. “Thank you for directing me here, Victoria. These tips were very helpful,” said the tall dark man.

    What is your favorite way to tag?

    • I’m glad you liked the tips, haha! Love your tag :-)I tend to use “said” or to try to make tagging obvious, so I don’t have to tag officially at all. But tagging doesn’t usually stand out to me when reading unless I find it confusing (as in, I can’t identify “he”) or it’s qualified by a bunch of adverbs.

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