Identifying Speakers in Dialogue: A Writing Q&A

Question: What is the best way to identify speakers in dialogue?Writing Q and A: Identifying Speakers

Answer: Many writers ask about this. I think the answer lies with your writing voice (style).

Here are some options:

1. Tag your dialogue with any descriptive word other than said, such as exclaimed, interjected, sputtered, yelled, and so forth. I learned this in Middle School and followed it for many years. Now the recommendation is to avoid doing this, as it singles lazy writing. I prefer to show the speaker’s emotion instead of stating it. For example:

Bruce narrowed his gaze and pursed his lips. “I can’t believe you did that,” he said.

I far prefer that to “I can’t believe you did that,” Bruce snarled.

I only use a descriptive tag if I feel it will make the passage stronger.

2. Only use said. While we need to identify the speaker, most readers skip the connecting word—or so I hear. Some people feel that using anything other than said is an annoying speed bump. Some people even recommend doing this for questions, as in: Then Gene said, “How long will you be gone?”

I generally use said when I need a dialogue tag, but I still use asked for questions.

3. My preference, however, is to use context to identify the speaker. In this way I minimize the use of dialogue tags and let the surrounding text show who the reader is, as in this exchange:

Ben stared at the book in his trembling hands. “You mean I get to keep this?”

Sue’s eyes danced. “Yes, it’s a gift.”

“I don’t know what to say.”

“How about thank you?”

“I so appreciate this.” Ben blinked three times, fighting to hold back tears. “Thank you. This is wonderful.”

In this passage, there are no dialogue tags at all, but the context shows us Ben is the first speaker and Sue, the second. Since this is a rapid exchange, readers understand that Ben then replies to Sue, and she responds in the fourth line. Then to make sure readers don’t get confused, the fifth line confirms Ben is talking.

This takes more work to write, but it seems this is the current trend and strikes me as powerful writing.

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