Laura Howard: Dialogue Tags


Dialogue Tags

Have there been times where you read writing advice that you knew in your gut was just plain wrong? At least, wrong for you.

I once read an article about writing dialogue that, for the most part, was brilliant. Until I came to this piece of advice:

Don't use tags for your dialogue. Ever.

So, I decided to try a little exercise. Take an ordinary piece of dialogue and leave out any tags:

How was your day?

It was fine.

Did you see Lindsay?

No, why would I?

Now, let's take this same dialogue and put some context and tags in:

She smiled up at him. "How was your day?"

He kissed the tip of her nose. "It was fine," he said as he ran his hands up her arms.

She shivered with delight. "Did you see Lindsay?"

He chuckled as he bent down to kiss her jawline. "No," he whispered into her neck, "why would I?"

It might just be me, but that changes things, doesn't it? Okay, let's change things around and see what happens:

"How was your day?" She asked nervously, looking around to see if anyone was in earshot.

He sighed as he removed his jacket. "It was fine," he answered without meeting her eyes.

She bit her lip, trying to think of a way to frame her question. She took a deep breath, "Did you see Lindsay?"

His back was to her as he hung his jacket on the peg. She thought she noticed his back stiffen, but she couldn't be sure.

"No," he said slowly. "Why would I?"

I did this a few more times, but you get the idea.

I'm curious about what you think. Can you pull off dialogue with few or no tags?

For fun, take the original conversation I posted up top, and shake it up! 

In the comment section post a completely different scenario- male or female, lovers or friends- whatever... just show me what different tags do to this dialogue.


  1. I’m not sure which article you read, but I had to add something here. As a freelance editor, I can say it would be a mistake to never use dialogue tags. You don’t want to use dialogue tags in every line, but you can’t avoid them. You can alternate between using dialogue tags, action tags, and nothing. That might be what the author meant. Or he/she might’ve wanted his/her readers to avoid using dialogue and action tags together because that’s redundant.

    Using one of your examples, I’ll show you what I mean.

    He kissed the tip of her nose. "It was fine," he said as he ran his hands up her arms.

    Since we know “he” kissed her, we know he’s the speaker because the action tag is on the same line or in the same paragraph as the dialogue. This is also buried dialogue because the dialogue is buried between the two parts of narration. To correct this, you can change paragraphs after the first action tag or you can eliminate one of the action tags. One last thing… If you have an action tag before or after the dialogue, you don’t need the dialogue tag. Here are four ways you could’ve written this example.

    1) He kissed the tip of her nose.
    “It was fine.” He ran his hands up her arms.

    Here, I removed the dialogue tag and separated the two parts of narration to avoid buried dialogue.

    2) “It was fine.” He kissed the tip of her nose and ran his hands up her arms.

    Here, I removed the dialogue tag and combined the action tags.

    3) He kissed the tip of her nose and ran his hands up her arms. “It was fine.”

    Here, I removed the dialogue tag and combined the action tags but moved the dialogue after the narration.

    4) He kissed the tip of her nose.
    She giggled.
    “It was fine.” He ran his hands up her arms.

    Here, I added narration to represent the female’s reaction and separate the male’s action tag and dialogue to prevent buried dialogue.

    Or maybe the author meant you should use invisible tags like “said” and “asked” instead of “hissed” or “growled”. I also wanted to point out that in your examples, you have buried dialogue. There’s no “rule” against it, but if you avoid buried dialogue, you’ll increase your story’s flow and pace. For more information on buried dialogue, check out these posts: and

    I hope this helps.

    This has inspired me to write a post on the topic. Thanks.

    Lynnette Labelle

    1. Cool- I've never heard of buried diaglogue- just goes to show you this novice writer has lots to learn!

  2. Good stuff, Laura and Lynnette! What's very noticeable about speech and action tags is how it changes the pace for the reader.
    There's a great section in Renni Browne & Dave King's 'Self-Editing for Fiction Writers' that deals with it. The chapter's called Easy Beats. I love the effect of well placed and paced tags. Actually doing it in the writing is more of a challenge ;-]

    1. I've never heard of that book- I'll check it out!

  3. Have you attempted reading "No Country for Old Men" yet? Would have given up but three chapters in suddenly couldn't put it down. It helped that I'd seen the film of course.

  4. Really interesting conversation Laura. I write nonfiction so this is new territory for me, but I am an avid reader so I can clearly understand your point and thinking about some of my favorite reads I realize how much the tags added to the storyline. Even though I will admit to a vivid imagination, the thought of writing fiction scares the heck out of me - but maybe that means I need to suck it up and give it a try one day. Thanks for the inspiration!

    1. Writing fiction is fun, Marty- get on the bus :)

  5. One agent who critiqued my work (not my agent) said that she hates all dialogue tags other than 'he said' or 'she said' -- and views it as a sign of weak writing. I'm not sure that I completely agree with her, but here's an interesting post on the subject. It's worth a read:

    :) Lauren

    1. Thanks Lauren, I definitely think too many he said/she said tags is distracting! If it's a given who's speaking then, by all means no tag necessary lol

  6. Ok Laura, I'm trying your challenge! Obviously, you've opened up a great dialogue here. Lynette's advice was helpful. I'll have to check out all the links listed here.

    "How was your day?" Michael asked as he dropped his keys on the counter.
    Elizabeth chopped vegetables at the kitchen island and didn't look up to meet his eyes. "It was fine."
    Micheal grabbed a celery stick from the cutting board. "Did you see Lindsay today?"
    "No, why would I?"

  7. I really enjoyed this post! Especially the nuances you invoked in your second example.

    I probably use eight or nine action tags to each dialog tag in a two-character conversation, but it isn't usually a conscious decision. Dialog is one of the few bits of my writing that flows freely rather than waiting for me to pry it out of my brain. So I think in my case, the lack of dialog tags has more to do with the speed of "transcribing conversation" than giving credence to best practices.

  8. This was a great discussion! Laura, I loved how you changed up your examples...they really put different spins on the dialogue! Now I'm off to learn about buried dialogue...I don't know what that is either!

  9. Great exercise, and I agree with you; sometimes you have to use dialog tags. Used correctly, they make all the difference. I'm a fan of action tags, as you used above, showing what the speaker is doing before they speak. But even those can get old if you use them in every sentence, so it's great to shake them up a bit, as you demonstrated.

  10. That's such a great exercise. I'll have to read up a little more on action tags and buried dialogue. I'm not great with the technical bits of writing :)

  11. It seems most rules are just opinions. I see nothing wrong with buried dialogue.


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