Writing Fiction: Dialogue Tag Basics

When I switched from writing non-fiction to fiction, dialogue was the hardest thing to get my head around.

quotation marksYou just don’t write dialogue unless you’re writing fiction of some kind, and it’s still the aspect of writing I find the most difficult. Today, Alythia Brown provides her tips for this crucial aspect of writing fiction.

Dialogue tags can present problems for some writers. When we refer to published novels and see varying styles for denoting dialogue, it can become confusing as to which format is correct. Understanding some basics will help clean up your work.

He Said, She Said…

On your never-ending quest to find a new way to say he said or she said, please don’t go overboard with substitutes. If you pepper every speaking phrase with a fun-filled synonym for said, it can become distracting and, well, annoying. It takes the reader’s attention away from what the characters are saying. Said can somewhat pass for an invisible word. Readers are accustomed to and skim right over said. However, you should still be mindful of its word count in your manuscript and try to find creative ways to keep it down. Chortled, gurgled, spluttered, and guffawed (while okay sparingly) should not be stuffed behind every quotation. In general, I’m personally not a fan of using a verb as a dialogue tag when it doesn’t make sense to describe someone speaking.

Not a fan: “Why did you do that?” she giggled.

I opt for this: “Why did you do that?” she asked, giggling.

She couldn’t physically giggle the words. She would speak the words and giggle in between them.

Let Actions Speak for Your Characters

Before you use spluttered for the fifth time in chapter seven, consider this: leaving out the dialogue tag when it’s unnecessary would be better. You can convey which character is speaking by use of action. Sentences before or after the dialogue work en lieu of said or replied (or whatever replacement you’ve found in an online thesaurus).

In the front: Sarah frowned as she studied Marlene. “You’re angry. I can tell.”

In the back: “Where are you going, all dressed up?” Natalie tore away her sunglasses to study her mother’s attire.

Avoid Long Sentences with Hard Returns

Many writers seem to have the habit of beginning a sentence with a hard return to dialogue at the end. This would be a run-on. Instead of one long sentence, make it two crisp sentences.

Incorrect: We stared at the ground for a long time before she finally looked up at me and said, “Would you like to go to the dance?”

Correct: We stared at the ground for a long time before she finally looked up at me and spoke. “Would you like to go to the dance?”

Using Periods and Commas Appropriately

Understanding when you should use a period or a comma is important. If you’re using an action or descriptive sentence to help your readers understand which character is speaking, make sure you use a period. It may “feel” right to use a comma, but that would be incorrect.

Incorrect: “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow,” Annabelle’s nose crinkled as she smiled at me.

Correct: a) “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow.” Annabelle’s nose crinkled as she smiled at me.

b) “You can borrow my sweater. I just need it back by tomorrow,” she said, her nose crinkling as she smiled at me.

When your dialogue tag crops up in the midst of a sentence:

Incorrect: “Wait,” she said, “Are you coming over today?”

Correct:  a) “Wait,” she said. “Are you coming over today?”

               b) “Wait”—she said—“are you coming over today?”

The period after said in option ‘a’ separates the sentences. Setting off she said with dashes, as shown in option ‘b,’ allows the phrase to remain one sentence.

One More Reminder…

When you are using question marks and exclamation marks, you still need to keep the pronoun lowercase because it is all considered one sentence. You wouldn’t randomly capitalize he in the middle of a sentence.

Incorrect: “Can you help me?” He asked.

Correct: “Can you help me?” he asked.

If you’re afraid you’ve been inconsistent throughout your manuscript with dialogue punctuation, simply use the search tool and plug in a quotation mark. You can then go through, one by one, to make any necessary edits. This seemingly tedious task will pay off in the end!

Do you have any comments on dialogue tips? Or questions about dialogue? Please add them below.

alythia brownAlythia Brown is a wife, mom, and author of Dakota Captive.

She blogs about writing, publishing, and literary agents at Publishing Tips for the Restless Writer.

Top image: Flickr Creative Commons quotation marks by quinn.anna

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  1. says

    Thanks for such a concise article on this topic. The examples really help!

    I think I need to look over some of my old dialogue punctuation just to be sure of it. There’s probably some bits I need to fix, especially in the area of comma usage. I tend to make the mistake of slapping commas where there should be periods, which was something that always somewhat eluded me.

    Good reference! :)

  2. says

    Thanks a bunch for these tips, Alythia and Joanna. It’s the little things like this that I find I struggle with sometimes – mostly the hard return sentences. The more I type, the more I put these things into practice and hopefully they just become a part of my natural toolbox of grammar and structure. As Aunt Josephine said in A Series of Unfortunate Events: “Grammar is the greatest joy in life, don’t you find?”

  3. says

    I’m afraid I disagree with this example:

    Incorrect: “Wait,” she said, “Are you coming over today?”

    Correct: a) “Wait,” she said. “Are you coming over today?”

    b) “Wait”—she said—“are you coming over today?”

    The example which is marked as incorrect should be:

    “Wait,” she said, “are you coming over today?” (The comma after said is fine, but the next word should start with a lower case letter because it is a continuation of the sentence.)

    Example (a) is also a grammatically correct option.

    But I disagree with using dashes to punctuate speech as in example (b), at least for something as short as a “she said” tag. Dashes should only be used when the speech is interrupted by a much longer clause.

    • says

      Hi Margarita,

      Thanks for leaving a comment! The purpose of the sample was to show basic punctuation. Since the ‘A’ is capitalized in the incorrect sample, the comma beforehand is what makes that sentence incorrect. However, I should have also offered your option! (“Wait,” she said, “are you coming over today?”)

  4. says

    This is such a helpful article! Thank you! I’ve scoured the internet for information on proper use of punctuation in dialogue and yours is the best I’ve seen… thank you, thank you, THANK YOU!

  5. says

    Oh what a precious, informative post! You are so right on the ‘He said, She Said’ thing: I have also been racking my brains trying to find the right verbs as to be as inventive as possible when a British edition of ‘Creative Writing For Dummies’ recently landed in my hands and changed my whole outlook on things. It said what you are saying, i.e. that ‘said’ can be invisible and we should just stick to it and rather use dialogue itself to show the way someone is acting or feeling. It’s a case of show and not tell I guess that takes the reader by the hand to bring him right in the middle of it all. Again, thanks so much – the whole post has been fantastic, well done :)

    • says

      Wow! Thank you so much for sharing! I was a little worried everyone would think the idea of ‘said’ being invisible was crazy. Haha! I’m glad to hear the editors of ‘Creative Writing for Dummies’ agree. Thanks for commenting. I appreciate your kind words!

  6. says

    I think we all feel like amateurs at times, Christine! If we didn’t, we would be far too cocky to improve. I’d say you’re on the right path. :)

  7. says

    Great tips. I like to find ways to avoid using dialogue tags altogether, as you stated. If the character’s actions make it obvious who’s speaking, it’s much more effective and less redundant. Well put.

  8. says

    You’ve done a good job of explaining the basics.

    I have always questioned the use of the tag, “asked,” where there is a perfectly good question mark at the end of the sentence.

    Superfluous: “Are you busy?” he asked.

    Correct: “Are you busy?” he said.

    The reader will know a question has been said because of the question mark

    Thanks for the article. Jim

    • Lyle says

      I’m a little confused. Since the question mark is a full stop, and there is no continuation after the tag, shouldn’t “he” be capitalized?

        • Lyle says

          I love an absolute! I have been scouring these posts and recording the results; hopefully, it’s finally settled into the Grammar Police section of my brain. Thank you for the posts!

  9. says

    This article was great and very helpful. I just have one question: When a character is thinking, for example: Who wrote this letter and sent this check? She asked herself. Is she capitalized or not?

    • says

      I think this one is trickier. I don’t think it should be capitalised but Word will underline it with a squiggly blue line and tell you you’ve got a grammatical error. I would actually try to avoid the issue by rewriting it, for example:
      She wondered who had written the letter.
      Or if it’s obvious who the POV character is then you can dispense with the filtering phrase “she wondered” and just say:
      Who had written this? (In which case I would italicise it to make it clear it’s her thoughts.)

      That’s what I think, but I’d love to know what other people think.

      • Kevin K says

        It should not be capitalised as the question mark did not come at the end of the sentence. That main point stands, regardless of the fact that the writer chose not to use quotes or italics.

        Who wrote this letter and sent this check? she asked herself. – is correct.

  10. says

    Please help! For some reason, a grammar rule is stuck in my mind, “Start every new speaker of dialogue with a new paragraph,” and my brain has translated it thus:

    Folly laughed.
    “That went well, didn’t it?”

    OR should it be:
    Folly laughed. “That went well, didn’t it?”

    Which is correct?

    I see under “Let Actions Speak for Your Characters” that you have action beats in the same paragraph as the dialogue. I thought this was wrong? Also, when I read fiction, I prefer the action separate from the dialogue because I tend to skim the action if they are together. But I want to know what is correct, not what I prefer! :)

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and for this extremely helpful and concise article!

    • says

      Hi Michele – in the two examples you gave, the second one is correct.

      Using action beats in the same paragraph just avoids you having to constantly repeat things like “he said” or “she said.” You could have written:

      “That went well, didn’t it?” said Folly, laughing.

      But what you wrote is better, in my opinion, because it’s neater.

      Hope that helps!

  11. Melissa says

    Hello. Thanks for the insightful article.

    Right now, I’m finishing up with editing/polishing my manuscript, but fear I’ve done something terribly wrong with my tags. Background: I started the story off in present tense, but not far into it I went into a flashback scene, which lasts for 19 chapters. In 20, I reenter the present, but am confused as to whether or not I’m supposed to continue using the tag ‘said’ or do I use ‘says’ whenever someone speaks. ‘Says’ seem more realistic to me, but, after reading so many “said is better; says will throw the reader off” articles, I am confused (I’m a newbie).

    If you have any information that’ll help me with this, I’ll greatly appreciate it. Thanks.

    • Joanna Penn says

      I don’t think 19 chapters is a “flashback scene” – that’s a lot of the book :) I’d find another successful book in the genre you write in where this is done successfully and model that.

  12. Kevin K says

    Good crisp advice, well given, but I’m afraid I have to diverge on the point you make about non-expressive dialog tags. i.e. giggled, smiled, laughed.
    Like it or not , “Why did you do that?” she giggled, is far better than “Why did you do that?” she asked, giggling. ( from a reader’s perspective)
    I understand the reasons why you dont like it , but I think one of the reasons many people don’t like it, is because it blurs the conventions that they feel comfortable with in dialog tags and punctuation and opens up a can of worms that cannot easily be closed again.

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