How do you show who’s speaking in dialogue? When do you use ‘she said’? When do you not? How else can you show a person’s emotions or state of mind in conversation? Read definitions clarifying the uses of dialogue tags vs action tags, and examples that illustrate effective dialogue attribution:
Dialogue and action tags: Basic Definitions
A dialogue tag is the narration we add to dialogue (either before, interrupting, or ending the dialogue) to show who’s speaking as well as (in some cases) their manner of speaking.
A dialogue tag is the ‘he/she/they/it said’ (or grumbled, whined, moaned – more on alternative dialogue tags below). For example (dialogue tag in bold):
“You really do look great,” Emelina said. “That’s a terrific haircut, I mean it. You’ll stand out in a crowd here till you get your first cut down at Beth’s Butcher Shop.”Barbara Kingsolver, Animal Dreams (1991), p. 30
An action tag, by contrast, shows actions or gestures that attribute and convey the tone or emotions of the speaker. For example, when Emelina continues and plays with her hair:
“I always forget you have so much auburn. Doc Homer had the same coloring, didn’t he? Sort of reddish before he went gray?” She fingered her own shoulder-length hair. “Speaking of him …”Kingsolver, p. 30.
Here, Emelina’s gesture adds a visual element to the conversation. It makes the characters read more embodied, present in the scene. They read as more than just talking heads in space.
So how do you choose to use a dialogue tag or an action tag?
1. Use dialogue tags to signal who speaks unobtrusively
Not every line of dialogue needs playing with hair or other gestures.
There are many times where content, established context (such as where characters’ conversation is taking place) and other details are enough to provide a visual sense of place in dialogue, or characters’ emotions.
The key use of the simple ‘said’ dialogue tag is to avoid confusion about who is speaking.
If, for example, in the scene above Emelina and the person with haircut (Codi, the protagonist of Kingsolver’s novel) were joined by a third person, it would be even more important to have the ‘Emelina said’ dialogue tag when she tells Codi ‘You really do look great’. For all the reader knows, Emelina may be addressing the other person in the room.
However, once it’s clear who’s saying what in a conversation, it’s often possible to drop dialogue tags entirely, as Kingsolver does after Codi replies to Emelina:
“Speaking of him…” [Emelina said.]Kingsolver, p. 30
“Speaking of him,” I said.
“Have you talked to him?” She looked apprehensive. Emelina was my informant. When he started getting lost on his way home from the drugstore, she was the one person in Grace who thought to call me, rather than just draw him a map.
“I’ll go up and see him tomorrow.”
Here, when Codi first speaks in the exchange, Kingsolver uses a dialogue tag (“Speaking of him,” I said.’). She keeps the attribution of who is speaking simple, unobtrusive. Yet notice how the next two utterances have no tags.
No dialogue tag is needed because we know the ‘I’ is Codi, and the other in the conversation is Emelina. We also know Codi spoke last and Emelina’s reply follows on with a line break and indent, and Codi uses the first person in her last reply. It’s thus wholly clear which line belongs to which character.
The dialogue formatting draws attention to itself as little as possible. Tags are included when helpful, descriptive of character, or necessary to avoid confusion.
2. Use either tag to convey tone
One area where dialogue tags and action tags overlap is in their ability to convey tone of voice.
Say, for example, Codi were surprise by Emelina calling the local salon ‘Beth’s Butcher Shop’. The conversation might continue like this:
“You’ll stand out in a crowd here till you get your first cut down at Beth’s Butcher Shop.”
“Beth’s … butcher shop?” Codi asked incredulously. She would only need a trim; there would (hopefully) be no blood involved.
Here, you could use a dialogue tag and an adverb to convey Codi’s tone of incredulity or surprise, as above. Or (and this would draw attention to itself less), you could use an action tag:
“You’ll stand out in a crowd here till you get your first cut down at Beth’s Butcher Shop.”
“Beth’s … butcher shop?” Codi made a mock-terrified face. She would only need a trim; there would (hopefully) be no blood involved.
Here, describing the change in Codi’s face has much the same effect, yet supplies a more visual (and perhaps more precise) sense of tone.
3. Use dialogue tags to relay others’ words within dialogue
When a character relays what another person has said, dialogue tags are useful.
Say, for example, Emelina started telling Codi about her last experience at Beth’s Butcher Shop:
“I only went in for a cut and a blow-dry. So Beth says to me, ‘What would you like?’ But I can tell from the way she’s holding the scissors she’s itching to start chopping and hacking away indiscriminately, and that’s exactly what she starts to do, though I told her I didn’t want anything wild. When she sees tears welling up in the mirror, she laughs! ‘You’re doing better than my last lamb,’ she says with a cackle.”
Here, dialogue tags help us differentiate direct speech being recounted from the dialogue currently unfolding. We can tell Emelina and Beth’s voices apart easily, without confusion.
4. Use action tags for subtext and subtlety
Dialogue tags are useful to a point for describing the way a character utters a phrase. Even though an adverb plus the word said (‘he said sarcastically’) or a alternative dialogue tag (e.g. ‘he moaned’) draws attention to itself somewhat.
Action tags are useful because they allow you to juxtapose words and actions in ways that create subtext and subtlety. Instead of ‘he said sarcastically’, you could have an action tag like this:
“Wow, that’s just great.” He stomped to his room and slammed the door so hard the house shook.
Here the boy’s anger in the action tag following his speech suggests a subtlety of tone – sarcasm. What he says isn’t what he means, clearly, from the angry accompanying action.
Action tags are helpful for inferring and insinuating things, such as subtleties and contrasts of emotion and desire. Take, for example, a date where a woman feels uncomfortable due to her date’s obnoxious behaviour:
“Geez, we’ve been here, what, an hour?” He swung a serviette in circles above his head, as though he were about to lasso one of the waitresses exiting the busy kitchen. He guffawed at his own cowboy antics.
“I’m sure they’ll come soon.” Her voice was almost a whisper. Other diners had begun to glare at them, and she leaned as far back as she could into the chair, praying a fire would break out or a hostage situation would arise, anything to have an excuse for a rapid exit without his creating an even bigger scene.
Here, subtext – the woman not enjoying her date’s behaviour at all – is clear from the way the action tag shows body language.
Gestures both dramatic and small convey emotion, leaving room for the content of both characters’ speech to add further detail and personality.
5. Mix action and dialogue tags as needed
Sometimes you may want to add a visual, a precise image (such as the man using his serviette as an imaginary lasso in the example above). Here an action tag helps to set the scene.
Other times you may simply want to signal who’s speaking, their words conveying character and tone enough.
Mix dialogue and action tags as needed. For example, the scene above might continue:
When the bill came, she said a silent ‘Hallelujah’. “Well, this has been fun,” she said coolly, not making eye contact with him – more out of revulsion than embarassment – and quickly putting down the exact cash necessary to make the fastest exit. She’d hurdle the restaurant’s decorative fence at a running jump if necessary.
Here, a descriptive dialogue tag (‘she said coolly’) conveys tone, while the attending actions (what the woman’s eyes are doing, what her hands are doing, what she imagines doing) add further character and emotion to the moment.
You don’t have to stick to one or the other – switch things up. Yet ask:
- Is this dialogue or action tag necessary to convey tone or emotion?
- Is this the least obtrusive way to show this (does the tag draw attention to itself unncessarily?)
See more examples in this preview from our monthly writing webinars:
This brings us to the last point – using alternative dialogue tags:
6. Avoid tags that can’t be said
Many beginning authors (and even seasoned ones) try to reinvent the wheel in using descriptive tags. ‘She whinnied’ might seem a good idea, yet not if you want your reader to picture your character as a horse.
Stick to dialogue tags people can say as a rule of thumb. You can:
- Mumble words
- Whisper words
- Shout words
- Grumble words
- Yell words
Try, however, to do the following out loud:
- Smile words
- Shrug words
There are many more actions that would be better written as action tags. Instead of “Why thank you,” he smiled’, you could have “Why thank you.” He smiled at the compliment.
This flows smoother as we shift from something auditory – the man’s words – to the visual – the smile that accompanies them, instead of mushing them into one tag (besides, you can’t ‘smile’ a word).
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3 replies on “Dialogue 101: Using dialogue tags vs action tags”
Verbs are always better than adverbs. Also part of what’s missing here is the value of brevity- FEELING is as much part of comprehending the novel as is the literal reading. A tag like “Oh it’s fine,” she shrugged, may seem awkward on the surface, but it communicates a mood very rapidly in fewer words, and certainly people can both smile and shrug while speaking. (the fact that there are “” in the situation at all lets us know someone is speaking, so a tag like ‘he smiled’ hardly confuses anyone).
Also saying something like “I can’t believe she’s gone,” he bemoaned, is always going to be better than “I can’t believe she’s gone,” he said sorrowfully. Prolific use of adverbs is a sure signal of bad writing.
Hi Axiom, thank you for sharing your thoughts. I agree with you (and Stephen King and others who have said so as well) that adverbs should be used sparingly if at all. You’re right that the combination of gesture and expression provides a way to convey mood and depth of feeling well.
I would perhaps even edit the dialogue example you gave to “I can’t believe she’s gone” without the tag or with just ‘he said’, the reason being that the words themselves suggest disbelief and could be interpreted as sorrowful, and the surrounding context would likely give the reader the exact feeling intended.
Thank you for sharing your feedback and perspective on what makes good dialogue.
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