hile I was writing my work-in-progress the other day, I focused on a scene full of dialogue. Two characters are arguing in a bedroom, and the scene is about a third of the way into the novel. Readers already know what the characters and bedroom look like and some of the characters’ quirky traits, so I had trouble creating dialogue tags that made sense and added description and depth to the scene. Sure, I used “said,” included no dialogue tags at times since there were only two people talking, and used some body language tags such as “she crossed her arms;” but I want my novel to sparkle and my dialogue tags to work for my story.
To tackle my semi-writer’s block, I made a list of the jobs dialogue tags can do in a short story or novel and turned to some of my favorite books to see how the authors put these tags to work for them.
Set a Scene
One way successful authors use dialogue tags is to help set a scene. Instead of including long paragraphs of description, they’ll put important setting details in the dialogue tags to keep the action moving and to give readers a sense of where the characters are.
Take for example, J. K. Rowling’s third Harry Potter book, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban. When students arrive at Hogwarts at the beginning of the year, Professor Dumbledore always welcomes them. Here’s what J. K. Rowling wrote for Harry’s third year:
“Welcome!” said Dumbledore, the candlelight shimmering on his beard. “Welcome to another year at Hogwarts…”
By reading the short dialogue tag above, you know that the speaker is Dumbledore, he has a beard, and candles are lighting the room. This is a simple and quick way to let readers know a detail about the room (and in this case, even the speaker).
Here’s another scene in the book where J. K. Rowling adds several setting details in her dialogue tags.
“What’s happened?” he [Harry] asked Ron and Hermione, who were sitting in two of the best chairs by the fireside and completing some star charts for Astronomy.
“First Hogsmeade weekend,” said Ron, pointing at a notice that had appeared on the battered old bulletin board. “End of October. Halloween.”
“Excellent,” said Fred, who had followed Harry through the portrait hole.
Without a paragraph of description, the reader knows where the characters are, some of the objects and furniture in the room, and an overall feeling for the setting of the scene. J. K. Rowling does this with the details she adds in her dialogue tags such as “battered old bulletin board” and “fireside,” which implies there’s a fireplace, of course. Notice that she usually uses “said” and then a statement full of description following. Some authors prefer to leave out the “said” and just put an action, such as:
“First Hogsmeade weekend.” Ron pointed at a notice on the battered old bulletin board.
Either way works—just pick the style that best fits your story and voice. Setting dialogue tags don’t have to be long. Think about your details carefully—if your character is going to sit down at a table, what kind of table and where is it? These are the types of details you can include in dialogue tags.
“Find ways to work in important physical and appearance details without slowing down the pace of your work.”
Reveal a Character’s Appearance
Dialogue tags can also reveal a character’s appearance—what a character wears, her physical characteristics, or even body language.
In Katherine Howe’s debut novel, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane, she writes a scene full of dialogue tag descriptions when Connie, the main character, meets her love interest, Sam.
“Hello,” he said, grinning crookedly at her surprise.
“Oh!” she gasped. Her mouth opened and, when no further sound came out, closed again, and her hand snaked up to grasp hold of the end of her braid.
“Hello,” Connie said finally, releasing the braid and returning his handshake. His palm was dry and firm, and Connie suddenly was aware of how sweaty and rumpled she felt.
“I don’t think Bob would mind if I showed you the archives,” said the man, pulling her back into the conversation. “Hardly anyone ever wants to look in there.” Under his nose, Connie just glimpsed a septum ring, and she smiled, amused.
From this scene and these dialogue tags, we learn a lot of information about Sam (the man) and Connie without pages and pages of description. Connie is nervous with sweaty palms, and she has long hair, which she wears in a braid. Playing with her braid is probably a nervous habit. We also learn that Sam appears more confident than Connie with a good sense of humor (smiles crookedly at her surprise), and he has a nose ring. It’s almost as if Howe sneaks in these details for readers while she keeps us interested in the spark between these two characters. That’s the true magic of using dialogue tags successfully.
If it’s important your character always wears her blue raincoat even when it’s not raining, then try to work that into a dialogue tag instead of telling readers every time she appears she’s wearing the raincoat. She could push up the sleeves, smooth it out, or un-zip it before or after delivering a witty line of dialogue. Find ways to work in important physical and appearance details without slowing down the pace of your work.
“People do not just sit and have a conversation in real life—they lean forward, cross their arms, and run their fingers through their hair.”
Put in Some Action
The most confusing thing an author can do is include two talking heads in a scene. This means there’s dialogue going on, but it’s hard to tell who is talking, where the characters are, and what they are doing. You can use dialogue tags to put some action into your scene. People do not just sit and have a conversation in real life—they lean forward, cross their arms, and run their fingers through their hair.
In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s award-winning novel, Esperanza Rising, she uses action in dialogue tags. Look at this scene in the beginning of the story:
“Come, mi nieta, my granddaughter,” said Abuelita, holding up yarn and crochet hooks. “I am starting a new blanket and will teach you the zigzag.”
Esperanza complained, “Must we always crochet to take our minds off worry?” She sat next to her grandmother anyway, smelling her ever-present aroma of garlic, face powder, and peppermint.
“What happened to your finger?” asked Abuelita.
“A big thorn,” said Esperanza.
Abuelita nodded and said thoughtfully, “No hay rosa sin espinas. There is no rose without thorns.”
This scene with Abuelita and Esperanza shows action with dialogue tags: Abuelita raises up the yarn and crochet hooks and nods her head while Esperanza sits next to her grandmother. In addition to these small actions, the author includes the sense of smell with a dialogue tag when Esperanza smells her grandmother’s familiar scent. This tag works extra hard because it shows action and setting details at the same time. Also, notice that Ryan does not mark every single line with a long dialogue tag—sometimes she just uses “said.” It’s important to switch up tags to keep the pace of your work moving and keep readers interested in the characters’ conversation.
One important point to remember when writing dialogue tags with action is to match the action with the tone of the conversation. If you’re writing dialogue between two characters in love, then their actions will include touching each other or even kissing. However, if you are writing a thriller and you have a scene between two business partners having an argument that leads to murder, your characters’ actions and dialogue tags have to match that purpose. Maybe one grabs a knife before he yells, “You’ll be sorry.”
“Everyone has inner thoughts during a conversation, even if you’re completely focused on what someone is saying.”
Share Inner Thoughts
Everyone has inner thoughts during a conversation, even if you’re completely focused on what someone is saying. You’re internalizing their words or thinking of questions to find out more information. The same should be true for your characters, whether you write in first-person or third-person—they are going to have inner thoughts while they’re having a conversation with another character. These inner thoughts can be included in dialogue tags.
In Dolen Perkins-Valdez’s debut novel, Wench, two characters—Lizzie, a slave girl, and Glory, a Quaker woman—discuss life when Lizzie visits Glory at her home. Notice Lizzie’s internal thoughts.
Lizzie considered that. “You like it out here, too?”
“I supposed it’s all right. I ran away from my family to marry him. They didn’t approve.”
“Were you rich and he poor?” Lizzie thought of Fran and Drayle and how her family had disapproved of him. The only thing that had saved him was his talent with horses.
“Naw. Simpler than that. They just didn’t like the looks of him. Said it was something about him they didn’t trust.”
“Were your parents like you?”
“What do you mean?”
“You know.” Lizzie couldn’t express what she meant in words. Were they like you, a white woman that doesn’t mind us, she wanted to say. A white woman that doesn’t mind sharing her cup with a slave-woman.
Perkins-Valdez tells you what Lizzie is thinking in this scene while she tries to figure out exactly what Glory stands for and why she wants to help slaves. Lizzie is the point-of-view character, and so it’s natural to hear her thoughts in the dialogue tags. Again, the author mixes up the dialogue tags—using longer ones for thoughts and no tags for some lines to keep the pace moving.
You wouldn’t want to include inner thoughts after every line of dialogue, but it’s a way to reveal what a character is thinking even if she’s saying something different.
Now, I’m ready to get back to my work-in-progress and tackle my scene full of dialogue. I’ll add some tags for action and especially some for inner thoughts since the two characters are arguing. How about you? Are you ready to make dialogue tags work for your story?
Margo L. Dill is a freelance writer, editor, and teacher, living in Mahomet, Illinois. Her work has appeared in publications such as Grit, Pockets, True Love, Fun for Kidz, Missouri Life, ByLine Magazine, and The News-Gazette. She is a columnist and contributing editor for WOW! Women On Writing. She is assistant editor for the Sunday Book page in The News-Gazette. Her first book, Finding My Place, a middle-grade historical novel, will be published by White Mane Kids. She writes a blog called, Read These Books and Use Them, for parents, teachers, and librarians. She owns her own copyediting business, Editor 911.
When she's not writing, she loves spending time with her husband, stepson, and two dogs—Chester, a boxer, and Hush Puppy, a basset hound. You can find out more about Margo by visiting her website: www.margodill.com. Find out more about the workshops Margo teaches by visiting WOW’s Classroom Page.
Want more on dialogue? Check out these related articles on WOW!:
Tips for Making Dialogue Stronger
Do You Hear it? YA Voice and Dialogue
Breathing Life into Dialogue