Sunday, January 18, 2009

Ask the Editor: More on Dialogue Tags

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Question: What I really want to know is what is the general consensus of dialogue tags? Is the old he said/she said still the preferred tag?

Submitted by Margay Leah Justice, author of
Nora's Soul.

Answer: Different editors have different preferences of nuance on this subject, but one underlying principle is consistently agreed upon. Dialog tags are a necessity for identifying who said what. Beyond that they have very little use. I’ll explain by example and analysis.


“Why did you do that?” John asked inquisitively. His sister was on the floor, nearly passed out, with an empty bottle of pain killers next to her.

Mary replied meekly, “Because I was just feeling so terrible. My head hurts so bad.”

John asked angrily, “So you took a couple dozen pain killers? Mary, that’s suicidal!”

“I’m so sorry, John. I don’t know what I was thinking,” Mary responded.

John added hastily, “Well, we had better get you down to emergency in a hurry.”

Mary agreed, “Yes. I suppose you’re right.”

“I’m always right,” John responded smugly.

There are some major obvious wrongs with this write, but some are less so. Here’s how I would do the edits. Changes, deletions and comments are in blood red bold type.


“Why did you do that?” John said. His sister was on the floor, nearly passed out, with an empty bottle of pain killers next to her.

Deleted: asked inquisitively.
Comment: Question mark indicates both the question and the inquisitiveness. You are being redundantly redundant.

Mary said, “Because I was just feeling so terrible. My head hurts so bad.”

Deleted: replied meekly.
Comment: It is obvious she is “replying” Also, rewrite this so I know she is FEELING meek. Do not inform me in the dialog tag.

“So you took a dozen pain killers? Mary, that’s suicidal!”

Deleted: John asked angrily.
Comment: Dialog participants are already established. No need to tell me it is John speaking again. And the exclamation point tells me he is upset and shouting. No need for “angrily”

“I’m so sorry, John. I don’t know what I was thinking.”

Deleted: Mary responded.
Comment: No tag needed, and even if it were, "responded" is redundant. Stick to 'said.'

“Well, we had better get you down to emergency in a hurry.”

Deleted: John added hastily.
Comment: Show me or let me feel in your writing the “haste” in John’s voice. Don’t tell me in the tag.

“Yes. I suppose you’re right.”

Deleted: Mary agreed,
Comment: This statement of Mary’s IS an agreement.

“I’m always right,” John said.

Deleted: responded smugly.
Comment: No need for “responded” and John’s statement is smug enough without you repeating yourself in the tag.


Several examples of bad writing are pointed out in the above.

First, if your characters have their own unique voices, which they’d better have, after the first couple of exchanges have taken place and the rhythm has been established, you can drop the tags altogether. We know who is saying what when. If someone new enters the conversation, then a tag becomes again appropriate. If it is a lengthy conversation, perhaps re-injecting a tag every now and then can serve a good purpose.

We should also know in what emotion words are being said. Instead of using "he said" "she said" tags with adverbs and/or adjectives in them, write in a facial expression, an action or a reaction that updates the reader on what tones of voice, what shifts in feelings, etc., the characters are going through.

Secondly, the use of verbs like “demanded,” “inquired,” “questioned,” etc., in a tag to a statement with a question mark at the end of it is redundant – overwriting. For example:

Mary inquired, “What do you want?”

Instead, write it like this- Mary said, “What do you want?”

Or you could write it like this- Mary asked, “What do you want.”

Notice I did not use “inquired” in the latter two examples. This brings me to the third point.

Tags preceding or following a quote should be limited to “he said,” “she said,” “he asked,” or “she asked.” Period. Frilly adjective and adverb-laden dialog tags with “creative” substitutes for the “said” and “asked” verbs cause a jerk, an interruption in the read. Novice writers often feel uncomfortable with the repetition; they get hung up on the need to show how creative they are. He said, she said, tags are not the place to get creative. Action tags, motion tags, emotional tags in-between quoted conversation statements, yes - use your creativity there.

Here's an example of writing with better use of tags.


John couldn’t believe his eyes. His sister lying on the floor nearly passed out, an empty bottle of pain killers beside her. He asked, “Mary, why did you do that.”

Mary had difficulty lifting her gaze. “Because I was just feeling so terrible. My head hurts so bad.”

John’s upper lip twitched. The smack of his fist into open palm mirrored on her face with a flinch and grimace. He could’ve spit venom. This was just like her. Always doing stupid crap to get attention. Pathetic. “So you took a couple dozen pain killers. Mary. That’s suicidal.”

“I’m so sorry, John. I don’t know what I was thinking.” She was paling fast, her breathing stilted.

Time was short. “We gotta get you to emergency.”

“Yes. You’re … right.”

“I’m always right.”

Article written and submitted by Marvin D Wilson.
Marvin is the author of I Romanced the Stone, and Owen Fiddler.
His primary blog is Free Spirit, at:
Marvin is an editor with All Things That Matter Press, and also does freelance editing.


  1. I usually write the story, then go back and look for places where I can eliminate tags and still make sense. It's surprising how many I can find.

    Morgan Mandel

  2. Great example, Marvin. Thanks for this informative post!

  3. Great discussion, Marvin. I would like to add a couple of comments, though.

    First, if there are only two people in the scene and one of them says, "Mary, what did you do?" aren't we very likely to assume that John is doing the talking? If yes, I'd leave that "John said" out, too.

    Very often, a bit of action can serve double duty by revealing who is talking. Marvin shows this in his rewrite, and that is a very valuable lesson.

    Another point is that "It depends." Generally, in high action scenes, the fewer the tags, the better. You want the action to really radiate. In more sedate or establishing scenes, you may want to slow things down a bit, and in that case, some well-chosen (but not too fluffy) tags will help achieve the pacing the author desires.


  4. Great post - thanks very much for putting it all so succinctly.


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