Tuesday, March 5, 2019

Dialogue Tags and Action Tags

Standard dialogue tags are said and asked. The mind skips over them, so they are invisible.

"It is hotly debated whether you should ever use colorful or adverb tags," she muttered. "Some editors don't mind a few creative tags."

"Some may allow adverb tags," she said skeptically. "Adverb tags are generally frowned upon."

" Break this rule at your own peril," she said mischievously.

Your dialogue should look like one of these examples. Note the correct formatting. Commas, periods, and question marks should fall within the quotation marks.

A comma separates the dialogue from the standard tag. A period separates the dialogue from an action tag.

The same formatting for the standard tag applies to a creative tag or action tags.

No tag: "I see."

Standard tag in the front: Sherlock said, "I see."

Standard tag in the middle: "I see," Sherlock said. "I have been misinformed."

Standard tag at the end: "I see," Sherlock said. (or) "I see," said Sherlock.

Action tag in the front: Sherlock cleared his throat. "I see."

Action tag in the middle: "I see." Sherlock cleared his throat. "I was misinformed."

Action tag at the end: "I see." Sherlock cleared his throat.

Action combined with a standard tag: Sherlock pointed to the clock and said, "I must be off."

For more tips on how to make your dialogue work for you, check out our previous posts.

The Importance of Mystery in Dialogue

Dialogue is Not Necessarily How We Talk

Tips for Writing Effective Dialogue

Five Tips to Effective Dialogue

Say it With Gusto


Dialogue, just the way we talk?

Diana Hurwitz is the author of Story Building Blocks: The Four Layers of Conflict, Story Building Blocks II: Crafting Believable Conflict, Story Building Blocks III: The Revision Layers, and the YA adventure series Mythikas Island. Her weekly blog, Game On: Crafting Believable Conflict explores how characters behave and misbehave. Visit DianaHurwitz.com for more information and free writing tools. You can follow her on Facebook and Twitter.


  1. This is a great topic, Diana, one that trips up a lot of writers. It reminds me of some manuscripts I've edited where a page is filled with short exchanges between two characters, and the writer identifies each bit of conversation with "he said" or "she said". Overuse of dialogue tags--whether standard or action--diminishes the power of a scene, while proper use enhances it. All writers need to remember that.

  2. Great reminders that "said" and "asked" are invisible to the reader. The only other one I like to use (sparingly) is "whispered."

  3. Good post. I don't like adverb tags, either. The content of your writing should tell you if your are acting mischievously or skeptically. You see these tags a lot in older books.

  4. I don't mind the occasional adverb tag, as long as it's not over used. Great post.

  5. On a long trip, I listened to a bestselling author's book, filled with adverb tags. Hearing them throughout was more than annoying. For that reason, I never use them. If you adhere to Elmore Leonard's rules, you'd never use them at all. I disagree. Adverbs have their place, just not as a dialogue tag. My rule is whatever works for the sentence is what I do. Bah humbug on the rules.

  6. Adverb tags are most 'famous' as Tom Swifties.


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