Seven Deadly Sins of Dialogue Tags: Examples to Avoid
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
How many people have written posts on this exact topic? Dozens? No doubt. Hundreds? I'd believe it. They keep writing them because it's an area where the point never sinks in. To the novice writer - almost invariably afraid of repetition - getting creative with dialogue tags just makes sense, no matter how many times people tell them not to do it.
Oh boy, have people told new writers not to get creative with their tags. I think every how-to-write-a-book book has a section on it - Mittelmark and Newman's How Not to Write a Novel is rich with examples of bad tags found in the wild. At the same time, the cache of "Said is Dead" images grows by the day. Clearly, we're at an impasse here, so let's go a little deeper and try to explain why creative tagging is such a bad idea.
What is a dialogue tag?
Dialogue tags are a basic structural element, used in dialogue to indicate the person talking. Sometimes, they might also express action. Sometimes, if there are only two characters, you can skip them. That's about all you need to know - dialogue tags are fairly mundane, practical things not worth dwelling on.
The stock response to "creative" dialog tag use is to point out that, as a simple piece of linguistic structure, "said" is effectively invisible and the reader tends to skip over it. This is true, but novice writers just don't buy it. Part of the blame goes to the schools - it's common in composition courses to teach students to make heavy use of a thesaurus, something they have to unlearn later. Some of it goes to the writers, who rarely view their own favorite books with enough of an analytical eye to realize that those authors don't do this. And some of it goes to a broader writing "community" that is always eager to dispense bad advice, creating lists of example dialogue tags so bad that I'm half-convinced that they are little traps meant to sabotage other writers and thus diminish the competition.
An example of dialogue tags gone awry
I think creative tagging comes from a lack of confidence. Neophyte authors who are afraid that their dialogue is boring may elect to spice it up with clever tags rather than try to improve the dialogue itself, something that can quickly become absurd. Let me show you how bad tagging can ruin a serviceable bit of dialogue. Here's an example from The Fabulist, one of my own works - a brief, simply tagged section featuring a conversation between the protagonist and the main villain:
Conqueror smiled again, a sight that still gave Storyteller a faint queasy feeling when he saw it. "Not at all, Samuel, this is merely self-defense. Even a pacifist such as you must understand the value in arming yourself in dangerous times. You do carry a knife, after all."
"That was a gift of sorts, actually," said Storyteller. "I have never raised a hand against another."
"Such a noble sentiment for a brutal time," said Conqueror.
"Perhaps nobility does not play into it," said Storyteller. "I've never had the need. There were always giants around to shelter me."
"Even in the old world?"
"My brother protected me then."
"And you learned nothing from him, from what he did on your behalf?"
"On the contrary, he taught me a great deal. His lessons are all that remain of him now."
Now, let's "improve" this with some tags from various online lists:
"That was a gift of sorts, actually," expressed Storyteller. "I have never raised a hand against another."
"Such a noble sentiment for a brutal time," menaced Conqueror.
"Perhaps nobility does not play into it," explained Storyteller. "I've never had the need. There were always giants around to shelter me."
"Even in the old world?" queried Conqueror.
"My brother protected me then." asserted Storyteller.
"And you learned nothing from him, from what he did on your behalf?" grimaced Conqueror.
"On the contrary, he taught me a great deal," expostulated Storyteller. "His lessons are all that remain of him now."
Is that second passage really more interesting than the first? If you answered "yes," then I guess there's no point in reading further. For those of you who answered "no," let's take a closer look.
Seven Sins of Dialogue Tags
Those of you who remember an earlier version of this article may be thinking "Didn't this used to be six sins?" And you're right, but seven is traditional, so here we are.
All of the examples presented here appear in lists you can find online - lists that you see shared in writer's groups by people who don't really know what they're doing, but are sure that the best way to write is to give a unique tag to every single line.
1. Non-Speech Dialogue Tags
Examples: cheered, chuckled, giggled, groaned, laughed, sang, snickered, sobbed, wept
We'll start with a relatively venial sin - defended by many writers, accepted by most readers, but aggravating to agents. Being non-speech verbs, they are better used as action beats than dialogue tags (something that will be a recurring theme here). You can get away with these if used sparingly, but use them a lot and a grumpy editor will slap one of your own lines in front of you and say, "All right, sob this line for me. Giggle it...No, I didn't say giggle and then say it, I said giggle the line."
2. Non-Vocal Dialogue Tags
Examples: beamed, coughed, grinned, gulped, hiccuped, perceived, quaked, smirked, sneezed, thought, trembled, wondered
Same problem as above - verbs better used as action beats - but even worse as none of these are verbal and thus are impossible to "say." These broadly fall into three groups: Physical gestures/expressions, involuntary bodily functions, or purely mental processes. These should always be action beats as they are meant to accompany a speech verb, rather than replace it. On the other hand, if you are capable of hiccuping or sneezing the dialogue from your own book, then you may never be a great writer but you could still have a future on the specialty entertainment circuit.
3. Structurally Unnecessary Dialogue Tags
This one might be a bit controversial, but I'll stand by it.
To recap from above, dialogue tags exist for a reason - to let the reader know which character is talking. Many writers seem to think that they need to carry more weight than that. I'll split this one into two subcategories, but they are directly linked.
First is "asked" and its more colorful variations (e.g. inquired, queried, requested). Plenty of writers view "asked" as a standard dialogue tag alongside "said." It's not. The English language already has an elegant and simple means of indicating that a sentence is a question. It's called a question mark. See how easy it is to use?
The other needless structure tags are "answered," "replied" and their more colorful variants (e.g. argued, explained, offered, rejoined, retorted). If one character is seeking information and another gives that information, you don't need to tell the reader that it was an answer - they can figure that out.
I think that these tags are usually subconscious tics - many authors automatically put "asked" as a tag after every question. It's not a serious thing. However, overuse of "asked" and "answered" will give your work that first draft feel.
4. Group-Only Dialogue Descriptors
Examples: bantered, chatted, conversed, debated
Now we get to the really bad ones. This category isn't too common, but you still encounter them in the wild from time to time, and they're all over tag lists. All of these indicate a conversation between two or more people and thus make no sense when applied to a single line from one person. Never use them as dialogue tags, I don't care how many lists feature them.
5. Redundant Dialogue Tags
Examples: accused, added, admitted, apologized, bargained, bragged, demanded, derided, described, fibbed, invited, joked, lectured, lied, menaced, prayed, repeated, scolded, taunted, teased, threatened
That block of examples could have been a lot longer. The bigger "said is dead" lists are mostly populated with tags like these, and they are truly indefensible. Look carefully at these and consider what they actually do. They don't describe how a character spoke, they summarize what they character just said. Some writers really fall in love with these, using in line after line to the point where you can skip the dialogue, just read the tags, and get a bare-bones digest of the conversation (which is usually more compelling than the actual dialogue, to be frank).
This is maybe the most brazen tagging sin, if only because no one does this just once - it's always a bad habit. Never, ever do this. There may be nothing that marks you as an amateur faster than using these tags, and they are so abundant on lists that it's a good reason to never use those lists.
6. Needlessly Obscure Dialogue Tags
Examples: assented, cross-examined, enumerated, expostulated, petitioned, remonstrated, stipulated, vaunted
Most writers over the age of 16 don't indulge in this kind of nonsense (and the adults who still do it are too far gone for me to reach), but words like these do show up on "said is dead" lists, and they are atrocities. Words that are technical, obsolete, or seldom used are, again, the result of teaching kids to use rare words regardless of whether or not they fit. Many of these are jargon terms that have precise meanings not adequately explained in a thesaurus, putting younger or layman authors at risk of misusing them. Others are just so arcane that they may force the reader to look them up, which is hard to justify from a piece of structural writing.
7. Basic Synonyms for "Said"
Examples: articulated, declared, enunciated, expressed, gabbed, mentioned, orated, pronounced, remarked, spoke, stated, told, uttered, voiced
For the final item, I present the ur-sin, the one from which all others spring - not just a tagging error, but a writing error in general.
The thesaurus doesn't turn people into bad writers, but it does guarantee that bad writers never become good writers. The find-and-replace function of word processors gives the bad author an easy fix to repetition, but it's a fix that doesn't address the underlying problem of voice and structure. You're treating the symptom and ignoring the disease.
The above words are all rooted in that sort of thesaurus abuse. These words are cumbersome and awkward and unnatural. Picture using some of these words when telling a story: "So Jimmy utters, 'Why don't we go to the gas station and try to cop some weed?' And I enunciate, 'But you're on probation, man.' Then he orates, 'No, I've done it tons of times, it's cool.'" Doesn't work, does it?
"Began" and "Continued." My 7th grade English teacher hated the word "began" because it's only necessary if you're suggesting that a character failed to finish some action - if I "began to write an article," then "began" is unnecessary unless it's important that I know when this character stopped. "Began" is pointless as a dialogue tag for the same reason. A lot of writers love to use "began" along with "continued" to create continuity during a long passage such as a speech, but you only need this if your dialogue is so muddled that the reader can't tell that it's a single speech.
"Implied" and "Inferred." Aside from people mixing them up all the time (To imply is to transmit, to infer is to receive), they don't work as tags because each one is only part of a thought. One does not merely "imply," one "implies X," where X is some unspoken subtext. "Infer" has the same problem, plus it's a mental process (See sin no. 2) and thus inappropriate for speech anyway. See also: hinted, intimated, suggested.