The Red Pen: A Two-Step in Dialogue Tags

                “How are you?” she breathed.

                “I think you know,” he thundered.

                “Really?” she drawled.

                “Really,” he growled.

Feel like you need a cold shower after reading this (unintentionally) hot and melodramatic scene? That’s because of the poorly-used dialogue tags. Realistic dialogue is hard enough to write without having to worry about your speaker attribution, the he said/she said aspect of your story, taking over. Read on for two quick fixes for dialogue tag dilemmas.

A Case for Said

I know what you’re thinking. “But said is so ordinary!” Somewhere in your head, your well-meaning third grade teacher is throwing a thesaurus at you and reminding you that big words like polysyllabic and sesquipedalian will make you sound smarter.

Ignore her.

Because here’s the thing about dialogue: you want what your characters are actually saying to talk. Dialogue tags, then, should be mostly invisible. Form follows function, and their function is to tell the story, not impress the reader with your bombast.

Now, if your character really is shouting or muttering, you can say that—occasionally, like you’d use spice in a recipe. Otherwise, stick to tried-and-true said.

Avoiding Adverbs

Beginning writers are often tempted to purple their prose by adding an –ly descriptor to their tags, like this:

                “I’ll pound you into the ground,” he said menacingly.

Think about it: is there another way to deliver a line like “I’ll pound you into the ground”? Adding menacingly is redundant.

                “I’m sad,” she said sadly.

See? In this case, it’s laughable.

The Tom Swift books by Victor Appleton (Stratemeyer Syndicate’s house pen name), a pre-Hardy Boys series, make use of adverb-heavy dialogue tags. Inadvertently funny in the beginning, the heavy-handed writing gave rise to the so-called Tom Swifty, a punny attributive tag like this:

                “Our first stop is the cemetery,” Tom said cryptically.

They’re good for a giggle, but hardly professional. Best practice is to avoid modifier glut altogether and depend on strong characterization.

The Bottom Line

Actions speak louder than words, especially when it comes to dialogue tags. Stick with said, use simple alternatives like shouted or whispered sparingly, cut your adverbs, and trust that your audience is smart enough to figure out attribution—you don’t need tags for every line. Tags exist to identify speakers, to make dialogue comprehensible, and to provide a “beat” that allows for description and action. Don’t make them work any harder than that.



Merry Gordon is silently correcting your grammar. A freelance editor and writer, Merry also has nearly two decades of experience teaching English at the high school and junior college level.


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