Verbs and Dialogue Tags: Or, Stop Smiling Words

By Annette Lyon

If you enjoy this guest post, be sure to check out the series on writing dialogue!

Back in my days writing for a small newspaper, I often did book reviews. One day a publicist handed me a self-published book. It was a semi-autobiographical novel, and the concept seemed interesting. I looked forward to reading it.

That is, until I got about four lines into page one. The book was a mess from start to finish. Even though I read the thing about a dozen years ago, I could still rant for days on the all the problems in the book (let’s just say this guy didn’t have the first clue about how to put together a coherent story, let alone a coherent sentence).

One particular peeve still stands out: the use of funky verbs instead of normal dialogue tags. In the first chapter, I noticed that no one ever said anything.

They began, interrupted, rebutted, chided, complained, warned, replied, whispered, teased, mumbled, proclaimed, ordered, confessed, pressed, affirmed, announced, proposed, confirmed, suggested, and (some of my favorites) guiltily petitioned, sarcastically rebutted, and proficiently advised.

I could tell the guy had a thesaurus and was trying hard not to use “said.” The result felt ridiculous. Finding his goofy dialogue tags became a game for me. I wrote down every one from the first chapter.

The list had over 90 tags. Not ONE used “said.”

By this point, my eye was seriously twitching with annoyance. I have a sneaking suspicion that I also laughed out loud . . . several times.

Here are three basic rules for dialogue tags that this author could have really used.

Rule #1: “Said.” Use it 90% of the time.

It’s our happy verb.

While you don’t normally want to be repeating the same words over and over in your work, “said” (contrary to what this guy thought) tends to be invisible. It disappears while it helps the reader keep track of who is saying what.

Remember that you don’t need “said” (or any tag) after every single line of dialogue. If the speaker is clear, you can leave off the tag altogether. But when it doubt, use “said.”

Rule #2: If you decide to use a verb other than “said,” be sure it’s a speakable verb. 

For example, don’t do this: “These flowers are for you,” he smiled. 

Um, no. Smiles are silent. You can’t smile words. You can smile while speaking words. You can smile and then speak them. But smiles themselves can’t speak. 

Other non-speakable verbs often used as tags include sniffed, nodded, shrugged, and a hundred others. 

That horrific book I slogged through used “her eyes begged” as a speech tag.  

(Wow. Those are some pretty special—and loud—eyes.) 

Rule #3: Use actions (sure, even “her eyes begged”) when referring to dialogue.

Just don’t use it as a speech tag. Instead, put those action verbs next to the dialogue in their own sentences, complete with end-of-sentence punctuation. 

Otherwise, the action is the thing speaking, and we all know that’s impossible.  

So this would be just fine: 

He smiled. “These flowers are for you.”  

Or, use “said” and then add the verb next to it. So this works too: 

“These flowers are for you,” he said, smiling. 

Examples with actions only: 

Steve walked into April’s apartment and handed her a bouquet of roses. “These are for you.” 


He got down on one knee. “Will you marry me?” His eyes begged to know the answer. 

See? No speech tags at all. Even better, no funky verbs that can’t be realistically spoken. All we have are actions separated by clear punctuation like a period or question mark, plus dialogue we instinctively know belongs to the right speaker. 
If you use these three rules, the verbs in your tags will look far more professional—and they won’t give a reviewer eye twitches and a serious case of the giggles. 

So please, no more (hmm . . . let’s consult my list of 90-some tags from chapter one): stammering, grumbling, ordering, proposing, affirmed, or quizzing, what say?

Annette Lyon has been writing ever since second grade, when she piled pillows on a chair to reach her mother’s typewriter. A cum laude graduate from BYU with a degree in English, she has had success with newspaper, magazine, and business writing, but her first love is fiction. She was awarded Utah’s Best of State medal for fiction in 2007. Tower of Strength, her sixth and most recent novel, is her fourth historical centered around old Utah temples.

If you enjoy this guest post, be sure to check out the series on writing dialogue!

Photo credits—Reader by Chris Johnson; smile by jdurham123.

10 thoughts on “Verbs and Dialogue Tags: Or, Stop Smiling Words”

  1. We get so many conflicting “rules” as writers! First we’re not ever supposed to repeat words, then we’re never supposed to use anything except said. And if you add an adverb to “said,” well—let’s just not go there.

    I give up. 😉

    I think the only times we should use dialogue tags other than “said” is when we want/need to emphasize how something was said in a way that can’t be conveyed by the words alone.

    “I’ll hate you forever!!!!” she shrieked angrily is obviously over the top—and we don’t need a speech tag (or four exclamation points) to know that she’s angry or shouting. However: “I’ll hate you forever,” she whispered or “I’ll hate you forever,” she lied or “I’ll hate you forever,” she said, her voice laced with sarcasm (unless it’s already obvious that she’s in a sarcastic mode) all convey information that might be important.

    But still, we want to use those sparingly.

    I’ve gone so far to cut ALL speech tags in my writing, though, that I might need to go back the other way. I almost never use said—or anything else. My dialogue tags mostly consist of ones like the examples above where I’m trying to add important info about how (or to whom, etc.) something was said.

  2. All dialog tags disappear for me: I don’t even bother reading them aloud when I’m reading to my kids.

  3. Jordan:

    If she’s lying then use that to full effect, but don’t use lied in a dialogue tag. It just doesn’t work:

    “I’ll hate you forever.” It was an immediate answer to a simple question, but forever lasted longer than this argument and she was left with the distinct impression that she had lied.

  4. @David—I think it depends. If we’re in the liar’s POV, and we’ve established what she’s saying isn’t true in a previous scene, a simple dialogue tag does suffice. If we’re not in the liar’s POV (which I think is what you’re going for in the example, but with only pronouns it’s unclear), we’d have to have some pretty conclusive evidence from the POV character to tack on “she lied” in the first place. Also, you always have to be careful of internal commentary on conversation severely slowing the overall flow—how much thinking can we do in the middle of an argument?

    The “she lied” example is actually from Janette Rallison’s LDStorymakers presentation.

  5. You have a wonderful blog, and it has very helpful advice. I do have a question about this topic though: what if what’s included outside the parathesis is an action, but you don’t mean to say anything about what the character is saying? For example:

    “Just forget it, Rose,” James shoved his hands into his pocket, “I’ll just do it myself.”

    I would think that’s fine because I’m specifying that he’s shoving his hands and not his words.

  6. I think the 90% said rule is insane. Good thing JK Rowling didnt read all the expert advice on the raging dialog tag debate. Read the first chapter of her first book. Varied dialogue tags, ly’s everywhere. Even some “non speakable” verbs.

    I think ignoring the “new writers should stick to said rule” worked out just fine for her

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