How often should you use speech tags in dialogue?
Speech tags or dialogue tags are the little bits of prose between lines of dialogue that tell the reader who’s talking, and perhaps also something about the way they talk or what they’re doing.
“We know that,” they said, in perfect unison. “The question is how often you should use them!”
In the example above, the part I’ve underlined is the speech tag. Thanks to the tag, we know there are multiple people speaking at the same time. If we were watching a film or TV show, we wouldn’t need to be told about this strange hive mind because we’d be able to see and hear them.
But in writing, sometimes the reader needs that little extra bit of information to help them see exactly what you want them to. The problem is that using one at the end of every single line of dialogue quickly becomes exhausting.
“So what should we do about it?” they asked.
“I’m getting round to that,” she replied.
“Well, maybe get there quicker,” they said.
“But this is helping me illustrate my point!” she replied.
“Whatever,” they said.
It sounds repetitive, the tags break up the flow of the words, and they’re just not necessary. In a conversation between two people, it’s obvious that when one person finishes speaking, the next line must be the other person, right?
“So we just shouldn’t include any?”
“You tell me.”
“No, you tell us. You’re the editor.”
“Am I? I thought you were.”
“Oh. Maybe. I’ve lost track.”
For a couple of lines in a conversation between two people, this works great. But for longer conversations and those with more participants, the dialogue becomes almost like a puzzle the reader has to solve to find out what’s going on. And if the reader is focussed on trying to figure out who’s speaking, they’re not going to be immersed in the world you’ve created.
You need to find a balance that gives the reader the information they need without becoming dull.
The bad news is that there is no hard and fast rule about where the right balance is. It depends on the dialogue itself and what else is happening in the scene. The good news is that a speech tag at the end of a line of spoken dialogue is not the only way you can tell the reader what is happening. There are a variety of ways you can do it without having to repeat yourself:
Use speech tags in different positions in the dialogue
Depending on what your character is saying, it might have more impact for the speech tag to break in halfway through the line of dialogue, creating a natural dramatic pause:
“I knew it,” he said. “You have been stealing my food from the fridge!”
Or even before the line of dialogue:
He turned around slowly to face me and said, “It’s over.”
You’re still using a speech tag, but there will be more variety in your sentence constructions, which will help keep the reader engaged.
Use an action tag instead
An action tag, like a speech tag, slots in around the lines of spoken dialogue. But instead of describing how a person speaks, it describes something they do. Since you use a new paragraph for each speaker in written dialogue, an action tag in the same paragraph as a line of dialogue tells the reader who spoke but in a less direct way.
“Wait for me!” Lily jogged to catch up with the others. “Why do you all walk so bloody fast?”
It might be obvious from the situation who would be saying which line. If one of your characters is bubbly and excitable, and the other is a giant grump, you might not need to tell your readers which one of them is really looking forward to Christmas and which one isn’t.
“The presents. The food. The pretty lights! I can’t wait. Can we put up the tree already?”
“I hope you’re joking.”
“No. It’s almost December already!”
“Yeah, almost December.”
Use a character’s name in the dialogue itself
Personally, I would reserve this for situations where there are more than two people talking. How often in real life would you be having a conversation with your partner and call them by their name? It sounds a little odd and unnatural. But if your friends arrive for a board game night and you’re trying to ask one of them how their week has been, it suddenly becomes much more important to use names – even in real life.
“How was your week?”
“Actually, I was asking John.”
“How was your week, John?”
“It was great. I got promoted!”
Writing is an art, not a science. That means there’s no formula anyone can give you for getting the number and position of dialogue tags exactly right for your work. There’s always going to be an element of what feels, looks, or sounds “right”.
But by using a variety of these techniques to ensure that your reader can follow a conversation without getting bored or having to try too hard, you’ll be on the right track.