Let’s talk about dialogue tags. The very complex world of dialogue tags turns out to be a lot simpler than you’d think. Below you’ll find dialogue tags broken down into one of five “levels” with easy instructions on how often to use them.
For this experiment, I used the tags listed in Stephen Wickstrom’s “200 Words to use instead of SAID” list. As this comes up in the top two results when you search “dialogue tag list” in Google, I figured it would be worth dissection.
Let’s jump into it. Below you will find the five levels of dialogue tags, named according to how often you’re safe to use each individual word:
LEVEL ONE TAGS – USE ANYTIME
Tags in this category: said and [no tag; inferred].
- “Simple” tags
Why anytime? Readers are coded to glaze right over said (and, obviously, over no tag at all). You can therefore use these simple tags anytime you need to explain who’s talking. However, avoid repeating said over and over on every single line. As long as you don’t confuse your reader, having no tag at all is the most effective.
LEVEL TWO TAGS – USE TWICE PER SCENE
Sample tags: told, began, replied, went on.
- “Utility” tags
- NOT associated with any specific EMOTION
- NOT associated with how the dialogue SOUNDS
Why twice per scene? These tags don’t bog down the imagination; they are purely for utility. During a conversation, you want the reader’s imagination to go more toward the meaning of the dialogue and the actions and interplay occurring between characters. Words that don’t ask us to imagine anything – the way something sounds, for example, or what emotion it infers – leave our attention free to focus on the actual dialogue. And because they don’t tax our focus, they are harder to notice. Each one can be used more than once in a scene if they are spaced apart well.
LEVEL THREE TAGS – USE ONCE PER SCENE
Sample tags: snapped, roared, croaked, slurred, whispered, growled.
- “Sound” tags
- Associated with how the dialogue SOUNDS
- Can be used for multiple EMOTIONS
Why once per scene? These words ask a little more of the reader, forcing us to imagine how the dialogue sounds. While this is generally a good thing, rarely will any of these individual tags need to be used twice in a single scene. If a character whispers once, it is assumed that they continue whispering until you say otherwise. Also, keep an eye on how many total sound tags you use. Too many will scatter your readers’ attention, and really, it doesn’t make sense for someone to shift the way they sound too many times in a typical conversation.
LEVEL FOUR TAGS – USE SPARINGLY
Sample tags: begged, whined, taunted, admitted.
- “Emotion” tags
- Associated with very specific EMOTIONS or situations
- Less association with SOUND
Why sparingly? These tags are harder to parse than those listed above. They are associated not only with specific emotions, but also specific situations, and sometimes specific sounds as well. For example, admitted signifies three major items: guilt, deference, and low volume. When we read a word, we strive to understand it in full, and when we read emotion tags, there is a lot more to understand. Those extra nanoseconds of brain processing are enough to stutter the reader’s experience, so use them carefully in order to make them effective. You’ll also notice that words harder to say aloud – such a begged – are generally more distracting than smoother words like whined.
LEVEL FIVE TAGS – NEVER USE THESE!
Sample tags: questioned, nagged, beamed, described, confided, surmised.
There are two types of these “poser” tags:
- NOT actual dialogue tags (can be used in sentences without dialogue)
- Overly complicated versions of other tags
Why never? If a word can be used in a sentence without dialogue, it is often not a legitimate dialogue tag. For example, you can say someone nagged or described without actually giving us their dialogue in the same sentence (e.g. “She nagged him relentlessly” is a sentence that doesn’t require specific dialogue). Even worse are words like smiled, which have nothing at all to do with speech. These words are so distracting because we are used to seeing them used in other ways. However, it is sometimes acceptable to use them near dialogue, just not as a tag. Example: The way he described his home made her heart race. “It sounds so beautiful,” she said.
As for those pesky “complicated versions” of other tags, we come back to the same problem: they are distracting. Take questioned, for example. It means the same thing as asked, but it has more syllables, is longer, and is much less familiar in general. It also fits under the above heading: you are more likely to question authority than you are to question the phrase “How are you?” Besides, why would you use questioned or queried when you can just say asked? Even worse, these poser tags often get used where no tag at all is needed. Take, for example: “Yes,” he confirmed. Notice anything? The word “yes” is, inherently, a confirmation. So saying he “confirms” a “yes” is straight-up redundant.
Exceptions. There are always exceptions! For example, take the tag boomed, which can technically exist in a sentence without dialogue (the thunder boomed), but has different connotations between the way something might boom in speech and the way an object might simply boom. Thus, this one really fits better under the LEVEL THREE category, relating more to the sounds it’s making. In fact, a lot of LEVEL THREE tags can look like they’d fall under this category, but they take on new connotations in dialogue than in nature (e.g. a tiger’s roar is not the same as a human roaring dialogue; a snake’s hiss is not the same as hissing words; and so on). Naturally, this is all a matter of taste, so you can make exceptions wherever you like 🙂