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Dialogue Tags: Definitions and Uses

Updated: May 1, 2020

Since today’s topic is dialogue tags – which you may or may not know about – let’s start out with a paragraph of dialogue, which… thanks to last week’s series… you're already very educated on.

“What did your coworkers do now?” Deanda pressed with disgust, having heard too many stories about them already.
“Oh no, it wasn’t them,” Sabrina assured, finally disengaging the lock and pulling the door open. “I just got all paranoid and thought this car was following me.”
“Someone followed you?” Deanda asked in a rather odd voice.
“No, it was just some Cadillac behind me all the way to the apartment,” Sabrina said, bolting the door behind her for good measure. “It freaked me out a little, but they went on to one of the back buildings, I think.
“Did you get a look at whoever was in the car?” Again that overly casual tone that implied too much interest while pretending to have none.
Making her way up into the living area, Sabrina’s eyes narrowed in suspicion. “It was some guys in business suits.”
“How many?”
“Four.” Sabrina dumped her purse on the couch.
“Were they all wearing sunglasses?”
“Yeah,” she replied, starting to get officially scared all over again. “How’d you know that?”

That (slightly doctored) text right there is the start of an international flight known as Not So Human (which you can read for $0.99 right here).

And, for today’s purposes, it’s also a great jumping-off point into our discussion on dialogue tags.

Thanks for that, Sabrina. You poor, clueless creature.

Excluding the controversy they can inspire (a topic for another day), these lovely little words are simple enough. If we’re talking about definitions only, the description below is all you really need to know.

Dialogue Tags:
A topic of great controversy, dialogue tags – also known as attributions – are the action verbs some writers attach to what their characters say. Because they always come after a noun (most often a proper noun) or pronoun, they help designate who is doing the talking.
That’s not the only reason why most writers use them though. The vast majority of dialogue tags also help describe how characters say what they say, whether it’s happily, sarcastically, worriedly, tiredly, authoritatively, lividly, laughingly or so many more possibilities.

Going back to our Not So Human blurb above, the dialogue tags used were: pressed, assured, asked, said and replied.

While none of those do much to describe tone of voice or attitude in and of themselves, check out the next segment for how diverse these dialogue tags can be.

Remembering that dialogue tags “are the action verbs some writers attach to what their characters say,” check out these next four Not So Human snippets:

“If you had told me it was dangerous and given me a good explanation as to why, then yes, I would have listened. You didn’t give me a chance though,” Sabrina accused, her hands on her hips. “You just assumed I was going to be… Well, what did you assume? That I was some spoiled American brat?”

Dialogue tag or not, the word “accused” isn’t typically associated with happy, peppy thoughts. So even without knowing the context around that quote, you still understand that Sabrina isn’t speaking in a happy, peppy voice.

She’s ticked off.

“Please tell me there’s some textbook on faerie life for me to study,” she groaned, leaning far back in her seat in a very unladylike slump.

Once again, not a delighted comment, though this one is filled with emotional exhaustion and maybe even some self-directed disgust: feelings that are easily conveyed in “groaned.”

“Deanda!” Sabrina screamed. “Deanda! Wake up!”

What’s with all the drama? Seriously.

On the plus side, you’re no doubt getting the picture by now.

“Good to know,” he laughed. “Are there any other words you like me saying?”

If you think you’ve got an official grasp on the definition of dialogue tags and how to use them… Here’s your homework. Try shifting the tone of the four snippets shown above by simply switching out the dialogue tags.

Make them as opposite or different as possible just by changing that one little key word in each. Once you do that, we’re ready to move on to that controversy we already alluded to.

Editor’s Note: Read the next post on dialogue tags here.

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