Tagging in Dialogue

One of the biggest problems writers have is not knowing when or how to use dialogue tags. Tags can bog down dialogue in a story. Excessive use of tags can actually make it harder to follow a conversation. Tags should only be used to help identify who is speaking or to provide additional insight not already conveyed in the conversation itself. The dialogue should in most cases be able to convey the emotion of the scene without hitting the reader over the head with extra dialogue tags.


This is the original version of a scene from A Game of Blood. Notice the sparse use of any sort of dialogue tags. Yet who is speaking is clear and the emotions in the scene are obvious.


The Original Version


Mitch picked up the phone and called Captain Torres.

“You lost what?” asked Torres after Mitch lied and said he had lost his file on Hawthorne.  “You can’t be serious?”

“I don’t know what happened to it,” lied Mitch again.  “I had it at the bookstore.  I thought maybe I left it there and I went back but nobody had found it.”

“Do you realize how much shit you are in.  How much shit I’M in?”

“I’m sorry.”

“Fuck, Mitch.  What was in that file besides your notes and clippings?’

“Not a lot that isn’t already public record.  Police reports.  Newspaper clipping.  Photo of Hawthorne.  No crime scene photos or anything like that.”

“Fuck.  Get your ass in here.  We need to file a disclosure and alert the victims’ families.  You know I have to tell Hawthorne’s fucking attorney, right?”

“They already knew I had the file.”

“You weren’t supposed to still have it!” 

“You don’t have to tell them who lost it.  Just that it is lost.”

“You didn’t just say that.”

“You took the file from me and sent it to evidence to file.  It wouldn’t be the first time a file disappeared.”

“What the hell has gotten into you?”

“Look, you went out on a limb for me.  I fucked up and I don’t want you to get shit over this.  That’s why I called you as soon as it was missing.  But you don’t HAVE to tell Kearney where the file was when it was lost, Anthony.”

You need to learn how to think like your antagonist, Andrea had said.  If you want to make him believable, you need to be able to understand how he thinks.   Mitch had taken that to heart.  He had always used a little manipulation in his job.  You manipulate a perp to get a confession.  You manipulate a potential witness to gather information.  But those were, in his mind, honest manipulations.  Police Psychology 101.  Part of the job description. He was expected to do that.  But he was pulling Anthony’s strings now in a much different fashion. He was trying to convince his friend and, more importantly, direct supervisor to do something that could get him fired or worse. 

“So what am I supposed to tell them?” asked Torres.  Mitch felt a strange tingle as he realized he was going to actually pull this off.

“After you took the file from me, you turned it over to evidence to file.  It never got properly cataloged.  Everyone knows that department has been short staffed due to the budget cuts.  The computerized tracking system still doesn’t work properly and nobody wants to pay for IT to fix it.  Nobody could blame you.”

“Mitch, if Fraz finds out…”

“Fraz won’t find out.  Fraz will be too busy using it as a campaign issue for Cambridge.  Look how Mayor Parkburg allowed the department to be under funded.  If we had the funds, the tracking program would have been running properly and this would not have happened.”

“Alright.  Alright.  I get the point.  I’ll figure it out.”



Now let’s take the same scene and add dialogue tags to each line of dialogue. Notice how it slows down the flow of the conversation.


Mitch picked up the phone and called Captain Torres.

“You lost what?” asked Torres after Mitch lied and said he had lost his file on Hawthorne.  “You can’t be serious?”

“I don’t know what happened to it,” lied Mitch again.  “I had it at the bookstore.  I thought maybe I left it there and I went back but nobody had found it.”

“Do you realize how much shit you are in.  How much shit I’M in?” asked Torres.

“I’m sorry,” said Mitch.

“Fuck, Mitch.  What was in that file besides your notes and clippings?’ asked Torres.

“Not a lot that isn’t already public record.  Police reports.  Newspaper clipping.  Photo of Hawthorne.  No crime scene photos or anything like that,” said Mitch.

“Fuck.  Get your ass in here.  We need to file a disclosure and alert the victims’ families.  You know I have to tell Hawthorne’s fucking attorney, right?” asked Torres.

“They already knew I had the file,” said Mitch.

“You weren’t supposed to still have it!” exclaimed Torres.

“You don’t have to tell them who lost it.  Just that it is lost,” said Mitch.

“You didn’t just say that,” said Torres.

“You took the file from me and sent it to evidence to file.  It wouldn’t be the first time a file disappeared,” said Mitch.

“What the hell has gotten into you?” asked Torres.

“Look, you went out on a limb for me.  I fucked up and I don’t want you to get shit over this.  That’s why I called you as soon as it was missing.  But you don’t HAVE to tell Kearney where the file was when it was lost, Anthony,” said Mitch.

You need to learn how to think like your antagonist, Andrea had said.  If you want to make him believable, you need to be able to understand how he thinks.   Mitch had taken that to heart.  He had always used a little manipulation in his job.  You manipulate a perp to get a confession.  You manipulate a potential witness to gather information.  But those were, in his mind, honest manipulations.  Police Psychology 101.  Part of the job description. He was expected to do that.  But he was pulling Anthony’s strings now in a much different fashion. He was trying to convince his friend and, more importantly, direct supervisor to do something that could get him fired or worse. 

“So what am I supposed to tell them?” asked Torres.  Mitch felt a strange tingle as he realized he was going to actually pull this off.

“After you took the file from me, you turned it over to evidence to file.  It never got properly cataloged.  Everyone knows that department has been short staffed due to the budget cuts.  The computerized tracking system still doesn’t work properly and nobody wants to pay for IT to fix it.  Nobody could blame you,” said Mitch.

“Mitch, if Fraz finds out…” said Torres.

“Fraz won’t find out.  Fraz will be too busy using it as a campaign issue for Cambridge.  Look how Mayor Parkburg allowed the department to be under funded.  If we had the funds, the tracking program would have been running properly and this would not have happened,” said Mitch.

“Alright.  Alright.  I get the point.  I’ll figure it out,” said Torres.


Some authors try to spice up dialogue by using dialogue tags other than “said.” But look what happens when we replace “said” with other dialogue tags in the scene. The conversation takes on a cumbersome feel.


Mitch picked up the phone and called Captain Torres.

“You lost what?” asked Torres after Mitch lied and said he had lost his file on Hawthorne.  “You can’t be serious?”

“I don’t know what happened to it,” lied Mitch again.  “I had it at the bookstore.  I thought maybe I left it there and I went back but nobody had found it.”

“Do you realize how much shit you are in.  How much shit I’M in?” exclaimed Torres.

“I’m sorry,” Mitch stated.

“Fuck, Mitch.  What was in that file besides your notes and clippings?’ scolded Torres.

“Not a lot that isn’t already public record.  Police reports.  Newspaper clipping.  Photo of Hawthorne.  No crime scene photos or anything like that,” assured Mitch.

“Fuck.  Get your ass in here.  We need to file a disclosure and alert the victims’ families.  You know I have to tell Hawthorne’s fucking attorney, right?” lamented Torres.

“They already knew I had the file,” replied Mitch.

“You weren’t supposed to still have it!” yelled Torres.

“You don’t have to tell them who lost it.  Just that it is lost,” suggested Mitch.

“You didn’t just say that,” said Torres.

“You took the file from me and sent it to evidence to file.  It wouldn’t be the first time a file disappeared,” implied Mitch.

“What the hell has gotten into you?” begged Torres.

“Look, you went out on a limb for me.  I fucked up and I don’t want you to get shit over this.  That’s why I called you as soon as it was missing.  But you don’t HAVE to tell Kearney where the file was when it was lost, Anthony,” recommended Mitch.

You need to learn how to think like your antagonist, Andrea had said.  If you want to make him believable, you need to be able to understand how he thinks.   Mitch had taken that to heart.  He had always used a little manipulation in his job.  You manipulate a perp to get a confession.  You manipulate a potential witness to gather information.  But those were, in his mind, honest manipulations.  Police Psychology 101.  Part of the job description. He was expected to do that.  But he was pulling Anthony’s strings now in a much different fashion. He was trying to convince his friend and, more importantly, direct supervisor to do something that could get him fired or worse. 

“So what am I supposed to tell them?” asked Torres.  Mitch felt a strange tingle as he realized he was going to actually pull this off.

“After you took the file from me, you turned it over to evidence to file.  It never got properly cataloged.  Everyone knows that department has been short staffed due to the budget cuts.  The computerized tracking system still doesn’t work properly and nobody wants to pay for IT to fix it.  Nobody could blame you,” assured Mitch.

“Mitch, if Fraz finds out…” began Torres.

“Fraz won’t find out.  Fraz will be too busy using it as a campaign issue for Cambridge.  Look how Mayor Parkburg allowed the department to be under funded.  If we had the funds, the tracking program would have been running properly and this would not have happened,” insisted Mitch.

“Alright.  Alright.  I get the point.  I’ll figure it out,” said Torres.

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