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Dialogue Tags: A Definition

Dec 13, 2016
Alex Crowley
Community Manager

“To tag or not to tag?” he said.

Dialogue tags can seem somewhat of a misnomer to the untrained eye (or even to the overly astute of us). In any case, they allow us to develop varying levels of interaction and engagement within our writing, which is a good thing, right? Although you may not feel that a simple tag word is anything of serious merit, you’re probably mistaken. Let’s break it down a little bit so we can clearly see what they are and how to use them effectively.

“So what even is a dialogue tag?” she wondered.

In essence, a dialogue tag is what it says on the jar; a tag in a piece of speech (discourse, for you geeks out there) that helps the writer establish a character voice and develop the interactions between the other inhabitants of their literary universe. They often look like this in their simplest form: “Pass me the water,” he said.

So far so good. Tags are easy. Tags are cool because although they seem like small, almost irrelevant devices, they ultimately lead to the creation of the character’s persona and augment interaction between two speakers.

“How can tags help me?” you ask.

Well, in short, tags can be best used when creating characters who have their own predetermined traits and egos. What do we mean by this? Let’s look at it from the perspective of an age old joke; “An Englishman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman walk into a bar”, these characters will undoubtedly have different traits which need to be displayed in a suitable manner without boring the reader. A good method would be to use their discourse to allow themselves to establish these voices. The Englishman might favour a dialogue tag such as ‘mate’, the Scotsman and the Irishman could choose tags like ‘aye’ or ‘pal’. These tag words roughly translating to ‘friend’ or ‘yes’ tell us something about their background, their heritage where they live or even who they associate with. Used together with other devices you can see how quickly you are starting to shape your world and its inhabitants.

“Let’s get creative, shall we?” he demanded.

By now you’ll have probably realised that, yes a tag is essentially ‘he said’, ‘she asked’, and other constructions of this nature, however we can do better than that. Unlike the name suggests you don’t have to just throw a tag onto the end of your discourse, they can be interspersed and employed throughout; “A new car, you bought another car?” James shouted incredulously. “Yet another car!”. Used in more versatile ways they can even lead the reader to develop empathy or animosity towards a certain character, depending on how the tags in their dialogue with another character have been used. A character whose speech is described with tag words such as: shouted, snarled or screamed,is likely a character that will undoubtedly warrant little or no empathy from the reader, whereas if their speech is tagged with such words as: begged, implored or pleaded, then the entire dynamic of the scene could be altered. If you want to take tags even further to display areas and the physical relationship between characters you can use adverbial and locational tags to aid you. “What did you need from me?” Rachel asked hurriedly from the front drive. Very quickly you are starting to construct real inhabitable worlds all through discourse and tag words.

To sum up this little blog post about your new favourite device, it should be said that while tags can be used excellently to your advantage, they shouldn’t be a cause for concern. Never feel that you aren’t being ‘complicated enough’ by not using them to create fantastic imagery and personalities. It is always okay to use simpler constructions as and when you feel.

Want to check out some examples? Take a look at the dialogue tags in these fantastical reads.