While reviewing another writer’s content, I came across a subject that caused me to question my methods. In this case, that particular aspect of writing was dialogue tags.
For years now I have been writing stories using tags in a way that were constant, but did my best to avoid repetition. Recently I read a book who used a similar tactic (constant, but not so divers) and realised just how tiring reading it was. This made me realise how badly I needed to learn more on this subject, so let’s take a closer look at dialogue tags.
Now we’re talking.
In movies, television, graphic novels, comic books or other visual media, the audience can see who is talking. This fact is not so obvious when reading a book, which is why writers use what is called “dialogue tags” to constantly indicate who’s speaking. Dialogue tags are usually composed of at least one speaker (identified either by a noun or pronoun) and a verb indicating a way of speaking (most popular are said and asked). The tags importance becomes significant with every characters involved in a scene; the more people involved in a conversation, the greater the need for dialogue tags to identify the speakers.
These tags appear so often in written fiction that they become invisible to us as readers, which is precisely the point. In order to keep the reader focused on the story, the tag must draw as little attention to itself as possible. However, these tags serve other purposes as well. Here is a list of what dialogue tags can do in a story:
- Identify the speaker: As I mentioned before, the basic goal of a dialogue tag is to identify who is talking during dialogue.
- Mimic speech: Dialogue tags help break up long winded speeches into meaningful and palatable chunks by creating pauses in the narrative, just like people do in actual conversation. This helps simulate speech patterns, add a sense of rhythm to the conversation, and helps avoid “walls of text” style dialogue.
- Clarity: A good balance between dialogue tags and action allow the characters to interact and add a feeling of depth to the conversation. By facilitating action and interaction between characters and/or the environment, readers get a better feel for what is going on.
- Manageability: Though some characters can be preachy or wordy, most people do not use long winded dialogue during a normal conversation. Instead they tend to speak in short phrases or single words. In these cases, dialogue tags can cut lengthy dialogue into more manageable pieces for the reader.
- Control tension: When a dialogue tag is paired with a description or an action, it can contribute to the mood and tension of the narrative. Describing speech delivery can totally change the meaning of a scene. Quick example: “Hello” he said joyfully or “Hello” he grunted have the same dialogue but wildly different tone.
- Adding description: People rarely stand still while talking. By inserting the occasional tag or action in the middle of dialogue, the writer can contribute to the depth of the story. This tool can help flesh out details in the setting, or give information of the characters.
Now that we have established what is a dialogue tag and what is their purpose, let’s take a look at the different ways to use them within within a story. By my understanding, there are four types of tags: the basic tags, the descriptive tags, the action beat and no tags. To create a compelling dialogue, a writer must learn to balance all of these methods so that none of them pull the reader out of the narrative.
These are short and simple, meant to draw as little attention to them as possible, while serving their purpose of identifying the speaker. Primary examples are said and asked, but basic speech tags can also include less-common verbs, such as suggested, noted, exclaimed, hollered, begged, whispered, etc.
On occasion, it is possible to carry on a conversation by using no tags at all, simply because it is obvious who is talking. The absence of dialogue tags is most commonly seen in situations where there are only a small amount of people talking.
Adding adjectives and adverbs to dialogue tags can provide insightful information about the speaker or the speech. Quick examples are he said angrily or she asked innocently. It is suggested that descriptive tags be used sparingly, that way they have more of an impact when they appear. Having too many of descriptive tags will cause them to lose their power, The reason to be mindful of descriptive tags is because they might tell the story to the reader rather than show it to them.
By separating dialogue passages with small inserts of action, the writer can successfully announce who’s talking and provide additional information. Used effectively, action beats can help the reader better understand the character and/or story elements, and add some movement to a scene. While using action beats, writers must be mindful of the story’s pacing. During a quick paced action scene, adding too many actions beats may clutter the text, slowing the story pace down, thus having the opposite effect which the writer is trying to obtain.
Punctuation rules around dialogue can be a daunting task to some writers as they differ from normal writing. Working in action beats, character traits, keeping track of who is talking all while trying to make the text flow in a conversation can be a challenge unto itself. Here are some examples of proper and improper use of punctuation based on different situations.
Sentence that starts with the dialogue tag:
- Correct: Evan said, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
- Incorrect: Evan said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
- Correct: Lindsay asked, “But why?”
- Incorrect: Lindsay asked, “but why?”
- Correct: Grabbing her by the arm, John said, “Quickly, this way.”
- Incorrect: Grabbing her by the arm, John said “Quickly, this way”.
Sentence that ends with the dialogue tag:
- Correct: “I’ll catch you later,” he said.
- Incorrect: “I’ll catch you later.” He said.
- Correct: “Why does it matter?” she asked.
- Incorrect: “Why does it matter?” She asked.
- Correct: “Please don’t touch that,” he said, taking the book away from John.
- Incorrect: “Please don’t touch that.” He said, taking the book away from John.
Sentence with the dialogue tag in the middle:
- Correct: “I’ll be waiting for you,” he said, “with bells on.”
- Incorrect: “I’ll be waiting for you,” he said “with bells on.”
- Correct: “That’s it,” she said, “now you’re going to get it!”
- Incorrect: “That’s it” she said, “now you’re going to get it!”
- Correct: “I don’t know,” he said in a weak voice, “I’m not up to it.”
- Incorrect: “I don’t know”, he said in a weak voice, “I’m not up to it.”
Dialogue tag that separates two sentences:
- Correct: “Wait,” Evan said. “How will I find you in this mess?”
- Incorrect: “Wait,” Evan said, “How will I find you in this mess?”
- Correct: “How come?” she asked. “I thought you were ok with this.”
- Incorrect: “How come?” She asked, “I thought you were ok with this.”
- Correct: “No,” John said, raising the gun. “Not this time.”
- Incorrect: “No,” John said raising the gun. “Not this time.”
More than one sentence assigned to a dialogue tag:
- Correct: “Close the door behind me. I’ll see you at the loading dock,” he said.
- Incorrect: “Close the door behind me. I’ll see you at the loading dock.” He said.
- Correct: “I love you. It’s all that matters,” Lindsay said.
- Incorrect: “I love you.” “ It’s all that matters,” Lindsay said.
- Correct: “When did this happen? Where was I?” he asked in a panic.
- Incorrect: “When did this happen? Where was I?” He asked in a panic.
Action beats, before and after dialogue:
- Correct: Evan raised a hand. “Umm, I have a question.”
- Incorrect: Evan raised a hand, “Umm, I have a question.”
- Correct: “I don’t care what she said.” She crossed her arms.
- Incorrect: “I don’t care what she said,” she crossed her arms.
- Correct: Ana motioned for the ratchet. “Pass me that please.”
- Incorrect: Ana motioned for the ratchet, “pass me that please.”
I have learned about the importance of dialogue tags, but in the end, they should help accentuate dialogue or be invisible to the reader. Dialogue should be strong enough to stand on its own, and not rely on synonymous attributions or overused adverbs to get the message across.
Until next time.