You should use a dialogue tag anytime it’s not completely clear who is speaking.
A dialogue tag lets the reader know who’s speaking. He said and she said are the most common dialogue tags, though if it’s not completely clear who’s speaking when you use he said or she said, it’s time to use your characters’ names. Let’s pretend for the example below that we’ve just started a new scene:
“Sorry I’m late,” June said.
“Where were you?” David said.
“I just ran by the grocery store on the way home.”
In this example, we tag both June’s dialogue and David’s dialogue with their names. That way everyone knows which characters are involved in the scene. In the third sentence, we skipped the dialogue tag completely, because it’s unnecessary. We know that June and David are the only people involved in this conversation, so once June starts speaking again, we don’t have to tag her dialogue.
However, you may not be able to go more than a few lines without some kind of indication of who’s speaking. If you do, the reader will start to get confused.
For example, if we pick up where we stopped with June and David’s conversation:
“I just ran by the grocery store on the way home.”
“I wish you’d called to let me know you were going to be late. I was starting to worry about you.”
“I had my phone on.”
By that third line, “I had my phone on,” we may want to add a sentence tag back in (“I had my phone on,” she said), both to keep the reader from getting lost and to break the dialogue up a bit.
If someone new has several lines to say, and it’s probably not going to be entirely clear who’s speaking until you reach the ___ said tag, then you should insert the dialogue tag after the first sentence of his or her speech, like this:
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. “I lost track of the time.”
As I mentioned above, said is the most common dialogue tag, because it disappears for the reader. In other words, as readers, we’re so used to seeing it that we don’t really notice it while we’re reading. This keeps it from feeling redundant, even if it’s used frequently.
You should use other tags—like shouted, screamed, bellowed, sobbed, sang, blurted, whispered, wailed—sparingly. These stand out in a big way, and can be very distracting for the reader, particularly when your writing is peppered with them. You may feel like you need to use such strong verbs regularly to show your characters’ emotions, but you’re usually better off adding a brief sentence that shows the character’s body language or actions instead.
Rather than saying,
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said regretfully.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she murmured.
in many cases you may be better off showing the character doing an action. This helps bring the scene to life for the reader.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” she said. She shuffled her feet, avoiding his eyes.
Sometimes you don’t even need the “she said” part:
“I’m sorry I’m late.” She shuffled her feet, avoiding his eyes.
Note, however, that in the example above there should be a period at the end of the line of dialogue, not a comma, the way there is when the dialogue is followed with _____ said. A lot of writers try to follow dialogue with a comma and then an action, but you can’t speak an action. For example:
Wrong: “Not even one,” she offered him a halfhearted shrug.
Right: “Not even one.” She offered him a halfhearted shrug.
Wrong: She offered him a halfhearted shrug, “Guess I got lucky.”
Right: She offered him a halfhearted shrug. “Guess I got lucky.”
You can also include information on what’s happening before or during the dialogue. As I noted earlier, this breaks up the dialogue and can make it feel more natural, since most people don’t speak super-fast without taking pauses. For example:
The man gripped her elbow, steadying her. “Let me help you,” he said. “You’re covered in blood. Is it yours?”
Finally, you can put the dialogue tag in front of the dialogue, though this is a less conventional approach, so it should be used with care. For example:
The two women eyed each other. Then Abbey said, “Are you trying to trick me?"
Finally, if someone is, for example, asking a question, you should always use a proper question mark at the end of the line of dialogue, and then add your ____ said as if you had used a comma (ie, with a lowercase he said or she said rather than a capitalized He said or She said).
Wrong: “You have to send anyone else to the hospital?” She said.
Right: “You have to send anyone else to the hospital?” she said.
And to pull together several principles we’ve discussed:
“Hey,” he said.
“You have to send anyone else to the hospital?” she said.
He nodded, checking off several adjectives in the mental status area of the intake form.“Three others.”
“Delusions of influence?”
“Well, I don’t know that the girl who thought she could disappear would count as a delusion of influence, but the others…yeah, they kind of fit that category.” He tapped the tip of his pen on the table. “How about you? Did you have to send anyone to the hospital?”
“Not even one.” She offered him a halfhearted shrug. “Guess I got lucky.”
Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook or Google+!