Who said what? The importance of tagging dialogue in kid lit

I’ve read loads of manuscripts that start out funny or entertaining or full of potential.

Then the dialogue kicks in and, quite frankly, it’s a birdy’s breakfast.

Nothing will baffle an editor faster than poorly tagged dialogue.

Do not overlook this if you want your manuscript to win friends and influence people.

If you want editors and publishers to stick with your story and see its full potential, make sure they don’t have to spend time wondering who the hell said what, backtracking and solving dialogue puzzles. It’s beyond frustrating. It won’t help you win favour.

Remember, you know your characters intimately. You instinctively know who’s speaking. But to the reader, your characters are like a flock of squabbling pigeons.

This is not just about wooing potential publishers.

It’s about understanding young readers. Your readers.


In children’s literature, you must always attribute dialogue (ie tag the speaker) if there are more than two characters speaking. Every spoken line needs an origin.

This is particularly important in junior fiction. In fact, in junior fiction, I tag everyone who opens their mouth. Even if its just to yawn.

Young readers quickly lose their place in dialogue. Help them along. Gently guide them.

Don’t leave them struggling or scratching their heads.

Tagging dialogue is so easy and yet so many  authors tap dance around it. Like it’s going to cost them money or something.

Maybe they think the tags all have to be original or ‘literary’.

This could not be further from the truth. Your tagging does not have to be fancy. No, no, no.

Remember, ‘said’ is an invisible word. For this reason it’s your greatest gift.

Because said is invisible it doesn’t mess with the pace. It doesn’t require a nanosecond of analysis or thought. It doesn’t slow things down or make the reader stumble. A dialogue tag such as said, helps the story skip along sans the burden of superfluous words. Unlike this paragraph.

Said is humble. It works hard for free.


So, aside from undertagging, (I made that word up), aspiring authors often use too many elaborate dialogue tags. Everyone is exclaiming or mumbling or exhorting or asserting.

Screamed, shrieked, murmured, bellowed, whispered. These are handy, but they should be used sparingly.

Remember, elaborate dialogue tags are like adjectives. Use too many and your work looks amateurish.

Use dialogue tags other than said, with discretion. (Unless of course you’re in grade five and the task is to come up with as many fancy verbs as possible.)

Also, go easy on the exclamation marks! They’re exhausting! Every time you use one, you’re shouting at the reader!

In the beginning, when you’re still finding your voice, reserve exclamation marks for dialogue only—and even then be stingy. Don’t hand them out willy-nilly. Likewise, make it a rule to never use them in the body of the text! Ever! Ironically, the text will  be more powerful without them.

For exclamation overkill read some Enid Blyton. I’m serious. It’s a great wake-up call. It will help you resist when your finger is hovering over the ! key.

But above all, tag your dialogue. Be kind to your reader. 

Easy peasy.

Jen xo

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