100 Ways To Tag Your Dialogue

To tag, or not to tag? That is the question.

Dialogue is a tough nut to crack. Advice is often contradictory and complex to implement.

There's been a firm rule circulating among writers in recent years that you should stick to simple dialogue tags, rather than rummaging through your thesaurus and using every tag under the sun.

The reasoning in this rule goes back to Ernest Hemingway who was a great proponent of using language in its simplest form to convey a message. He was a master of minimalist writing and as a result his prose can deeply impact the reader.

A good rule of thumb to follow is to 'use the simplest language and format possible'. Many of my writing companions and fellow bloggers said that using an assortment of tags is distracting, jarring, and unnecessary - an obscenely flagrant misuse of language when a simple, said, asked or replied would do.

I'd like to challenge that thought today. 

Although being understood is our main objective as writers, we must have ample use of vocabulary to do so. It is a worrying trend to see so much of our rich vocabulary being lost because we are limiting our usage of words exclusively to simple ones.

It was Mark Twain who said,

'The difference between the almost right word and the right word is really a large matter. 'tis the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.'

Vocabulary is at the heart of good writing. Knowing how to use it to convey your message in the most meaningful manner is the craft. 

There is much to be said for the differences between sobbing, bawling, crying, wailing and sniffling. The slight nuances add elements of character, sound, tone and layers of emotion that differ to a meaningful degree.

An angry person might speak in many different ways depending on their character. For example, they might shout, shriek, argue, bark, bluster, bellow, screech, rage, rant, retort, scold, stammer, thunder, swear, or yell. 

Someone who is arrogant and self important might drawl, opine, orate... and so you get the idea.

Dialogue tags can enrich your dialogue with onomatopoeic words to help add characterisation and give the reader a sense of atmosphere and tension between characters in conflict, be it active or passive.

Simplicity is at the heart of good writing, and words are the strings that give the reader that all important emotional connection.

Using the right word is the paramount thing. It matters less whether it is simple or complex. The right word paints vividly.

Here's a list of 100 Ways to Tag Your Dialogue that I created while teaching creative writing. Feel free to download and share it.


Jessica Triana de Ford is Exeter Writers Blog Manager, and co-ordinates content as well as edits submissions. She loves being part of a supportive writing group and being in a position to help support other creatives find the courage to express their ideas. You can find out more and connect with Jessica on LinkedIn and Twitter.