top of page

Knowledge Centre

5672_John Romans_NovelEditing_LogoWithoutStrap[1323].jpg

How Do I Avoid Speech Tag Repetition in My Novel?

Overwriting is a trap that many inexperienced authors fall into. Often this is down to a lack of confidence in their own writing: is what they’ve just written sufficiently clear or do they need to give the reader an extra bit of help?

As well as being distracting, pulling them out of the fictional world you’ve created, it may also leave readers feeling patronised – did the writer really think they needed the extra prompt?    

One of the ways this can manifest itself comes with dialogue tags and their accompanying adjectives.

Let’s take a look at some examples below:


‘I’m worried I’m going to be late,’ said Jill anxiously.


The word ‘anxiously’ is redundant here. We already know Jill’s worried so can work out for ourselves how she will be saying this piece of dialogue.

This line will read better as simply:


“I’m worried we’re going to be late,’ said Jill.  



‘We need to proceed with caution,’ warned Bill.


It’s clear from the dialogue that Bill intends his statement as a warning, and so this would read better as:


‘We need to proceed with caution,’ said Bill.


Sometimes the dialogue tag itself is unnecessary:

Joe handed over a wad of notes.

‘That should make up for any inconvenience,’ said Joe.


In this example, there is no need to spell out that it is Joe speaking. We know he has just handed over some cash; it’s clear that he’s the one speaking these lines. We can rework this, then, as:


Joe handed over a wad of notes.

‘That should make up for any inconvenience.’


In the example below the author is trying to use the tag to show us something of Becky’s character and her view of Geoff:


‘I don’t trust that Gavin guy,’ said Geoff.

‘I think you’re right,’ said Becky, agreeing with him for once.


The problem here is that it’s the author’s voice telling the reader that Becky rarely agrees with Geoff. It would have greater impact if it was Becky herself who said this, as in the revised version below:

‘I don’t trust that Gavin guy,’ said Geoff.

‘Just for once, I agree with you,’ said Becky.

This version has more of an edge to it. While Becky is grudgingly acknowledging her agreement with Geoff, her dialogue also suggests this is an unusual – and probably temporary – state of affairs.   

Sometimes writers repeat themselves in their tags as they are worried that the actual dialogue isn’t strong enough. This is a case of putting the cart before the horse – if the tag has more impact than the actual dialogue, it’s time to go back and rework the dialogue.

For example:


‘I’ll be back for your birthday,’ promised her father.


Here it looks like the author feels the dialogue itself is a little bland and unemotional. They have tried to make up for this by using the word ‘promised’ in the tag. Having a tag that is stronger than the dialogue is never a good look. It’s much better to get to the root of the problem and strengthen the dialogue.

The example below uses an action beat and a stronger quote – as well as having more emotional impact, this removes the need for a tag.

Her father put his hands on her shoulders and kissed her gently on the cheek. ‘I promise I’ll be back for your birthday.’


Avoiding Overwriting with Dialogue Tags in Fiction: Conclusion

Using dialogue tags to state or restate information risks distracting and disengaging readers and is something to avoid. Whenever you see you have done this, it could be a sign that the dialogue itself needs strengthening (and could possibly also do with an action beat) to give it more impact.

If someone is angry, we want to see and hear this through their actions and words – not rely on the author to tell us.

There is an additional reason for keeping dialogue tags as simple as possible. Readers are so used to seeing ‘he said’, ‘she said’ and so on that the tag becomes almost invisible. If you start replacing ‘said’ with verbs such as ‘warned’, ‘threatened’, ‘vowed’, the tags become visible and, once again, may distract the reader from what is actually being said.

Dialogue tags are a useful tool that authors can use to support their dialogue. Like any support act, though, they should never upstage the star!

bottom of page