Wednesday, April 3, 2019

Tips for Tagging Dialogue

by Sarah Sally Hamer @SarahSallyHamer

Dialogue tags can be one of the most useful tools in your toolbox, or they can be completely wasted words, depending on how you use them. Putting just a little thought behind which tags you use can make all the difference in the world. A dialogue tag – also called an attribution – is a small phrase, which usually tells the reader WHO is speaking. But it can tell us so much more.

We’ve all seen dialogue tags that make us say “huh?” but my very favorite is one a friend shared with me. Here’s the sentence: “Don’t get your dander up,” Alice said, slangily. 

Slangily? Really? What exactly does that mean?

So not only did this writer (I won’t mention which 1960s series of a young female detective it’s in) use a word that most people wouldn’t know, if it even exists, she also threw away a perfect opportunity to add a description or an action or even set the tone for the scene. In so many words, she wasted it.

Margie Lawson ( says that, “Dialogue cues inform the reader howdialogue is delivered. They are NOT dialogue.” (My emphasis.)

So how do we make dialogue tags count? Instead of a throwaway words, search for phrases that can enhance the story. Use strong words to accentuate what a character said. 

A few very specific tips:
1. Don’t use adverbs, i.e. –ly words. 
Example: “I don’t want to,” she said, haughtily. (Or loudly. Or softly. Or gloatingly. Or angrily. Or joyfully. Or any other of them!) 

2. Don’t use clich├ęs. 
Example: “I don’t want to,” she purred. (Or hissed. Or sneezed. Or laughed. Or queried.) Unless you can actually say something while you’re purring or hissing or sneezing or laughing, your character can’t either. And, by the way, hissing involved the letter ‘s’. There MUST be an ‘s’ in the sentence to allow someone to hiss.

3. Do use dialogue tags to set a scene or add description.
Example: In her calmest pre-saloon-brawl voice, she said, “I don’t want any trouble.” Jessa Slade, Forged of Shadows
“Guess we’ll have to remedy that.” I matched my inflection to her sing-song dialect that wandered up and down the scale like the mountain switchbacks. CJ Lyons, Rock Bottom

4. Do use dialogue tags to add emotion.
Example: “But Uncle Bob,” I said, whining like a child who had just been told she couldn’t have a pony for her birthday. Or a Porsche. Darynda Jones, First Grave on the Right
“Why are you making like a guidance counselor?” I could hear the venom in my voice but couldn’t seem to control it. Rosemary Clement-Moore, The Splendor Falls
“Blood?” She heard her voice come out crooked and harsh. “What did they do with blood?” Sarah Hamer, The Curse of Jezebel’s Jewels

5. Do use dialogue tags to add action.
Example: “I’ll teach ya a thing or two about stealing from the Saloon passengers, me boyo.” The man loomed over her, sticking a billy club back into his belt before he grabbed her shoulder and gave her a shake. Sarah Hamer, The Curse of Jezebel’s Jewels
“What do you need from me?” Sam’s voice had gone blurry. He caught the phone under his jaw, writing. Tana French, The Likeness (paraphrased slightly)

Do you see the difference? How much more information about your character can you shove into a simple “said”? It’s amazing how much!

I’d love to see some examples of your dialogue tags. I bet you can do even better!


I wish to express gratitude to the giants whose shoulders I stand on and who taught me so much about the writing craft. I would list every one, if it were only possible.

Sarah (Sally) Hamer is a lover of books, a teacher of writers, and a believer in a good story. Most of all, she is eternally fascinated by people and how they 'tick'. She’s passionate about helping people tell their own stories, whether through fiction or through memoir. Writing in many genres - mystery, science fiction, fantasy, romance, medieval history, non-fiction – she has won awards at both local and national levels, including two Golden Heart finals.

A teacher of memoir, beginning and advanced creative fiction writing, and screenwriting at Louisiana State University in Shreveport for over twelve years, she also teaches online for Margie Lawson at Sally is a free-lance editor and book coach at Touch Not the Cat Books, with many of her students and clients becoming successful, award-winning authors. 

You can find her at


  1. Always amazing insight into the world of fiction writing.

  2. Replies
    1. Thank you, Melissa. I learn better from seeing how someone else does something, then putting my own spin on it. Thanks!

  3. “Wow!” Chris scratched her head in dismay thinking about all the editing required in her first novel, 75% completed, after reading a post by Sarah Hamer. “Better late than never, I guess.” ;)

    1. LOL!!! But it's very worth it, Chris! Good for you!

  4. Another insightful post, Sally.
    I learned lots.

    1. Thank you, Ingmar. I'm glad you found something useful.

  5. Great information! I may have to rethink some of my tag lines.

    1. I love that there are so many choices to make a story stronger! Thanks for the comment!