Dialog tags are sometimes tricky to use. When to use them? Why? Where? How much?

I’m not going to assume you don’t know what dialog tags are. I’m not even going to go into grammar and whether you should ever use “said” versus something else. I’m just going to give you four rules of thumb that I give my authors. 

Now, as I’m wont to say as if it were actually funny, the problem with rules of thumb is that if you try to use your thumb as a rule, you’re likely to hit it with a hammer. These are not to be taken as always true. Your use will — and should — vary according to what you describe.

  1. Indicate who is speaking as early as possible. A frequent sign of a “discovery” or “seat of the pants” writer is a wall of dialog-text, ending with “Sam replied.” In your mind, you always know who’s speaking. The audience doesn’t. Show them in the first or second line of the paragraph.
  2. If there is a wall of dialog-text, break it up. People never stay still while they’re talking, unless they’re creepy and perhaps have the last name Addams. If you’ve gone more than three lines, consider adding in a description that shows body language, or how the character’s inflection changes as he delivers a joke. You do this for the same reason we use separate paragraphs for different characters in the same conversation (a modern convention used only after the rising popularity of the novel): to keep things from being monotonous and to remind the reader who is talking. And I’m not just referring to showing the name of the character each time — you do this to show the differences between characters. Each person reacts differently, so your characters should be different too.

    (What if I have ten lines of dialog? It’s a rule of thumb. Watch out for the hammer. Things will change based on what you write; maybe it’s better to split your character’s paragraph into two; maybe you need to trim something; maybe you show someone else’s reaction to what your character is saying. See what works for you; just don’t have a wall of dialog-text.)

  3. Roughly every third person to speak should show an emote. Let’s say you’ve got four people in a conversation. You’ve got dialog tags to keep track of who’s speaking, but you’re not showing emotion or expression (yes, “emote” used to mean more than just a “:p”) because it doesn’t seem to add anything to the scene. Well, even if you have a staff meeting of military officers acting 100% professionally, you’re going to have changes in expression. If you don’t describe that, then the reader imagines a group of robots. We’re used to seeing minute changes in expression. We need to see that in text too.

    (Remember, this is a rule of thumb. If you stick to every third person all the time, and you have only three people talking, then you’re going to have two robots. Similarly, this doesn’t mean that you should be afraid of putting in emotes more often if the scene calls for it.)

  4. Show blocking. If you’ve done film or stage work, you know what blocking is. Show this in your text through dialog tags. Instead of just “Sam said,” use “Sam shook his head, dropping himself into a chair with a heavy thump.” If we then know that “Jane walked to the seat opposite Sam and sat down as well,” we know their relative positions. We can visualize at least part of the scene. (And, for those who dislike lots of “he-said-she-said,” showing physical motion gives you more variety as you show who speaks.)

In short: the purpose of dialog tags is to: identify a speaker; provide non-dialog information (context) relevant to the conversation such as body language; and to break up a wall of text to prevent monotony. It’s usually in that order of importance, too. Keep that in mind, and you’ll do fine.