Lose “Said” & Try Action Tags in Dialogue

Dialogue is one of the most fun parts of a story to write. We can really get in our characters heads while writing dialogue. It’s our opportunity to let our characters speak, to share who they are.

We can also use dialogue to develop our characters not only through their words but also through their actions.


With action tags.

What, exactly, is an action tag?

An action tag is when an author uses an action rather than a speech tag like “he/she said” to let the reader know who’s speaking.

For example, when writing dialogue, I could use a speech tag (which is in bold):

“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane asked.

Or, I could use an action tag (which is in bold):

“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane slumped in her seat and swiped the back of her hand across her eyes which had started to water.


“Sarah, why didn’t you text me back?” Jane shook her head in disgust before slamming her phone onto the desk and glaring at Sarah.

Using a speech tag or action tag is crucial to letting the reader know that Jane is speaking, but just saying “Jane asked” or “Jane said” doesn’t add any of her emotions to what’s happening in the story.

Sure we could write “Jane yelled” or “Jane whined” but adding what she’s doing while she’s asking, yelling, or whining, helps to develop her character and also to move the story forward.

What’s wrong with ‘said’ or ‘asked’?

Nothing is wrong with using “said” or “asked.”

In fact, you should use these tags, especially when you’re writing a conversation between three or four people. They are vital for communicating who’s speaking.

Why use action tags?

Using only dialogue tags can get boring. You can use action tags to show what your characters are doing which also can show what they’re thinking and feeling.

Action tags:

  • allow you to develop your characters and their emotions as in the above example with Sarah and Jane.
  • add action (shocking, I know). By adding action, readers have a much easier time visualizing the scene which makes it so much more interesting.
  • help keep you focused on the plot and what’s happening in your story which is crucial to keeping your story moving forward.

They’re also fun to write cheap wellbutrin online because you can really show your characters’ emotions through what they’re doing as well as through what they’re saying. They make you think about how to show emotions through body language and action.

Put it into Practice

Try playing with action tags in this super basic conversation that we can tweak completely by changing the action tags.

Example #1 – no action or speech tags

“Hey, what’s up?”

“Nothing, here. What about you?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

Example #2 – action and speech tags

“Hey, what’s up?” I asked as he got close. I leaned on the lockers, trying to look casual and not actually as panicked as I felt. I’d been trying to get the courage to talk to him for weeks outside of our lab. He had to talk to me in Chem ever since we’d been assigned to be lab partners. But we’d never spoken outside of class. Till right now.

He paused slightly, looking surprised that I’d said something to him. “Nothing, here. What about you?”

“I’m good. Thanks,” I managed to choke out as he nodded and continued down the hall with his posse.

Example #3 – action and speech tags

“Hey, what’s up?” I tried not to screech as I wrapped my arms around him in a big bear hug, but I think I failed miserably judging by his wincing.

“Nothing, here,” he said, sarcasm lacing his words. “What about you?” He lifted me off my feet and twirled me around, laughing. When he set me down, I could see the grin on his face as he pointed to the call back list posted on the wall outside the drama room. I’d seen it earlier, and we’d made it. Both of us.

“I’m good. Thanks.” We stopped twirling and re-read the list, his arm draped over my shoulder.

Same dialogue but completely different emotions based on the actions following the words. This is where story happens.

Now you try it. Take the same boring basic three lines above and see how many different emotions or scenarios you can convey based solely on the action tags and internal monologue both of which will convey emotion.

Then, share your conversation in the comments. It’ll be fun to see how many variations we can come up with for these three lines.


  1. writerkitty on November 15, 2016 at 8:23 am

    Oh wow, this seems fun. Here’s what I got. 🙂

    “Hey, what’s up?” I asked with a bright smile, hoping that he’d answer. Our previous converstaion didn’t go too well, and deep down, I knew it was my fault. Annoying other people is one of my specialities, but hurting them isn’t one of them. I stood right infront of him, waiting eagerly for a reply.

    “Nothing here,” He muttered after a few seconds of silence. His voice sounded neutral, but he dared to ask, “What about you?” My heart skipped, he’s not mad at me. A gush of relief rushed though me as I smiled again. He was crearly avoiding eye-contact, but talking with me again was more than enough for now. Maybe Emmott was right, maybe being friendly was a good thing.

    “I’m good thanks.” I almost singsonged. For some unexplainable reason, I was really glad that he talked to me again. He nodded brushing his thick trousled hair from his face. He was still staring at the pile of rocks down below.

    • Amy on November 15, 2016 at 8:46 am

      Love it! I like how you broke up his two lines with a pause before he responds with “what about you?” I think it’s so fun to play with snippets of dialogue like this because the actions/tone of voice/body language etc. adds so much to a conversation.

    • Juilana on October 27, 2023 at 8:07 am

      what is this story based on

  2. Sean Cleary on June 2, 2020 at 7:34 pm

    The question marks muddy the example.
    I was looking for comma placement.
    “Words words(,?)” action (,?) more words.
    “Words words(,?)” action (,?) More words.

    The second cap only happens if the second comma does not happen. But Should the first questionable comma happen? or should both? Or neither?

    • Amy Isaman on June 3, 2020 at 4:15 am

      Hi Sean – I’m a little bit unclear to your question, but I’ll give it a go. I actually think you wouldn’t use commas in this situation at all. It would be periods, especially if the action tag in the middle is a complete sentence. If you use a dialogue tag AND an action tag, you’d use a comma.

      Just action tag example:
      “I wish I hadn’t eaten that second piece of cake tonight.” Taylor slowly tipped over until she was laying down in the restaurant booth. “Why did you let me get it off the buffet?”

      Action & dialogue tag example:
      “I wish I hadn’t eaten that second piece of cake tonight,” Taylor said as she slowly tipped over until she was laying down in the restaurant booth. “Why did you let me get it off the buffet?”

      Does that answer your question?

      • MaryGal on January 29, 2021 at 1:27 pm

        “What’s up?” Henry’s voice reached me through the phone.
        “Nothing here. How about you?” My heart surged waiting on his reply. Paying attention to his voice, trying to hear any sign of a lie. Was he really keeping that from me?
        He hesitated for a moment and I could hear in his voice when he replied “I’m good, thanks.” The lie.

        “What’s up?” The figure spoke in a low voice from the shadows making him jolt.
        “Nothing here” Gary quickly replied recovering from the jump. “How about you?”
        “I’m good, thanks” so polite, anyone who might hear her would never guess she was a trained assassin.

        • Amy Isaman on January 30, 2021 at 8:34 am

          Ohh – the phone conversation is kinda fun. It’s harder to add action there, but your line about paying attention to his voice, listening for the lie is great. I think we’ve all been there, and you captured it with his momentary hesitation. Nice job!

  3. Charles Cox on September 16, 2020 at 10:16 pm

    Thank you for sharing such useful techniques so clearly, Amy.

    • Amy Isaman on September 20, 2020 at 12:16 am

      You are so very welcome, Charles!

  4. Constance Parker on November 15, 2020 at 2:13 am

    Are words like teased, laughed, probed or prodded action tags?

    • Amy Isaman on November 18, 2020 at 2:24 am

      Hi Connie,
      Those are actually other ways to say “said.” They’re more descriptive than said but they aren’t really action tags. An action tag is a sentence where you show what the character is doing. For example, “Susie, I’m going to ask you one more time. Where were you last night?” My dad stared at me without blinking, his arms resting on his knees as he leaned forward and waited for my answer.

      This action implies probing or prodding without but also gives the reader a physical description of what’s happening in the scene. Does that clarify for you?

  5. Leah on October 24, 2021 at 4:37 pm

    A bit late to the party, but I thought I’d have a go.

    I collided with her has I rounded the corner past the boy’s locker room. “Hey, what’s up?” I blurted out awkwardly. I’d been trying to avoid her since our argument the day before, but there was no escape now.

    “Nothing, here,” she replied with a venomous tone. “What about you?” I could see the hurt in her eyes, the blueness of them seemed to be tinged with a grey that conveyed her mood. I was fighting the urge to hug her and say sorry, but there was something holding me back.

    “I’m good. Thanks.” I managed to strangle out as a reply, totally covering up my true feelings of course. Before I could say another word, she turned away and strode purposefully down the hall. Watching her go, I knew I had to fix this, as regret etched its way into my heart.

    • Amy Isaman on October 25, 2021 at 10:47 am

      Oh I love it. You do a great job of describing how the words are said ie. “venomous tone,” “managed to strangle out” without being over the top. I also like the collision at the beginning, so it starts off with a strong action.

  6. Carmen on March 29, 2022 at 5:13 pm

    I was surprised recently by a authortuber saying, dont use action tags to replace dialogue tags. She said the rule is “she said and got out of the chair”. She called it amateurish and fanficky!! But this is what i learnt from many writing craft books, and another author on youtube taught about actions to replace the dialogue. This author told me many published authors use action tags to replace dialogue tags, and i felt better after it.
    Have you found this contentious? Christopher kokoski was the author who made me feel loads better. I learnt this method by focusing on deep pov.

    • Amy Isaman on March 31, 2022 at 7:15 am

      I’ve honestly never thought about action tags vs. using said as a potentially contentious issue – kind of funny to think of that way! I think this is a style issue which is personal to every writer. I just pulled A Fault in Our Stars by John Green, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon, and The Midnight Library by Matt Haig off my bookshelves. John Green writes dialogue like your authortuber suggests – he uses said, asked, or responded (etc.) followed by an action tag.

      Diana Gabaldon does all of the above. She uses straight action tags. She uses said/asked etc. alone and followed by an action. She also uses quite a few adverbs to describe how characters speak such as “he said ironically, good naturedly, brusquely” which every writing book ever says not to do. Clearly, it has not impacted her readership! I’ve read the entire Outlander series (millions of words) and have noted her adverbs but never felt that they weakened her dialogue or writing.

      Matt Haig has a different style where he uses both action and dialogue tags. But, he also tends to break his dialogue up with internal thought monologues from the main character. Here’s an example from p. 54: “She took off her shoes. ‘I’m not.’ A memory came to her, related to the Jaws t-shirt. A tune, actually. ‘Beautiful Sky.’ [insert extended memory]
      ‘Yeah,’ he’d said. ‘it’s okay.’
      She wondered….[more memory which reads to me like an action tag]”

      All of these work. I don’t think that you should stick to a hard and fast rule like ‘only use said followed by action,’ or ‘only use action tags.’ Use what works for the story and for your writing style. When I teach creative writing, often beginning writers are unaware of action tags or of how to use or write them, hence this post.

      I encourage you to pull some of your favorite novels off the shelf and see how the authors handled dialogue. Study them. Read like a writer and see if you can figure out what you like and why you like it, then play with that in your own stories. I have both blog posts and a podcast episode on reading like a writer that might help.

      I hope this helps!

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