"Let's discuss dialogue tags," he said.
By Evan Braun

One of the most basic and important skills in writing fiction—and also in non-fiction, though to a slightly lesser degree—is mastering the use of the dialogue tag. A dialogue tag is the little sentence clause that tells you who speaks. It’s not the most elegant aspect of writing, but dialogue tags are necessary and perform a simple function.

Here are some examples, with the dialogue tags italicized:

“This is a post about dialogue tags,” Evan said.

“But doesn’t everyone know about those?” his friend asked. “What’s to write about?”

Evan smiled and said, “You’d be surprised.”

The dialogue tag can go at the end of a line of dialogue, in the middle, or at the beginning. It consists of two key elements: a noun (either a proper noun, such as a name, or some other moniker) and a verb (usually “said” or “asked”). There are lots of potential speaking verbs, but the more diverse “said” and “asked” synonyms you use, the more the dialogue tag will draw attention to itself. This is a bad thing, as I’ll explain later in this post.

Dialogue tags also have particular punctuation rules. Remember that the dialogue tag isn’t a sentence on its own; it’s merely a clause in a longer sentence, which includes some dialogue in it. Let’s take another look at my three examples, starting with the first:

“This is a post about dialogue tags,” Evan said.

Note that there’s a comma after the word “tags,” not a period. “Evan said” is a small but important part of the sentence, and the use of a comma reflects this. The next example sentence throws us a bit of a twist:

“But doesn’t everyone know about those?” his friend asked. “What’s to write about?”

Once again, the dialogue tag (“his friend asked”) is part of the sentence. If the first part of the dialogue (“But doesn’t everyone know about those?”) hadn’t been phrased as a question, the question mark would be a comma, just like in the first example sentence. It would probably look something like this:

“Everyone knows about those,” his friend said. “What’s to write about?”

The question mark after the word those doesn’t end the sentence, and therefore the very next word—his—shouldn’t be capitalized. If you were to capitalize it, the dialogue tag would become a sentence of its own, and it would cease to be a dialogue tag and instead become an incomplete sentence, or a sentence fragment. You don’t want that.

“If you have a long paragraph of dialogue,” Evan wrote to demonstrate his point, “then it’s generally a good idea to place the dialogue near the beginning of the paragraph, at the earliest opportunity. This allows the reader to immediately figure out who’s speaking, and move on through the paragraph without having to do any detective work. If you leave the dialogue tag to the end of a long paragraph like this one, then the reader doesn’t know who’s speaking until after the speech is finished, which is too late. When it comes to dialogue, it’s good to be simple and upfront.”

Let’s look briefly at my third example sentence:

Evan smiled and said, “You’d be surprised.”

In this case, the dialogue tag is at the beginning of the sentence and is combined with some other information. Here, I’m adding the bit explaining that Evan smiled before he spoke. The part about smiling isn’t part of the dialogue tag, but it is a part of the sentence. The dialogue tag is still restricted to the two key ingredients I mentioned earlier—the noun and the verb.

Authors often try to eliminate the need for constant dialogue tags by finding other ways of clarifying which characters bits of dialogue belong to. Let’s rewrite my three sentences to remove the dialogue tags but keep the reader informed about the speakers.

Evan looked his friend in the eye. “This is a post about dialogue tags.”

“But doesn’t everyone know about those?” His friend frowned. “What’s to write about?”

Evan smiled. “You’d be surprised.”

Now, as you can see, the dialogue tags have been removed, replaced by full sentences that are disconnected from the dialogue itself. By adding complete sentences (which incidentally add some more details about what the characters are doing while they speak), it is still clear who’s speaking.

So there are certainly ways of reducing and minimizing the appearance of dialogue tags, but they needn’t be eliminated. Sometimes a dialogue tag is still the best and most efficient way of communicating to your reader who says what. You don’t need to shy away from them, but definitely use them judiciously. Let’s say you have six paragraphs of dialogue in a row, with three or more characters participating in the conversation. Obviously you need to elucidate who’s speaking, but you can use a combination of dialogue tags and the above technique of avoiding them. For example:

“What’s for dinner?” Liz asked.

Evan opened the fridge door. “Well, let’s take a look.”

“I’m hungry for fried chicken,” Joey said from the table.

Liz put her arm around Joey’s shoulders. “Same here.”

“Okay, let’s order in.” Evan closed the fridge. “Who has the number for the pizza place?”

Joey pulled out his phone. “I’ve got it on speed-dial.”

This conversation uses a mix of all the above techniques, and the result is a fluid and clear exchange of dialogue.

There’s one more important dialogue tag issue to address before I wrap up today’s post. Some authors just starting out seem to be under the illusion that using “said” is repetitive. Maybe they got some bad advice from a high school teacher or an overzealous editor. They may strive to change up their dialogue tags by replacing “said” with a myriad of other words: replied, responded, spoke, shouted, piped up, argued, cried, etc. This is a well-intentioned approach, and certainly these “said” synonyms have their place in writing, but it’s neither necessary nor desirable to reduce “said,” or eliminate it entirely. The truth is that readers gloss over dialogue tags, and specifically they gloss over the word “said” such that they hardly notice it’s there; all they see is the name of the character who’s speaking, and then they move on. As is right and proper. Using dozens and dozens of “said” synonyms is counterproductive, because it draws the reader’s attention. You don’t want the tags to draw the reader’s attention; you want them to fade into the background so that they’re hardly noticeable. Don’t worry about the issue of “said” repetition. Use the word as much as you need to. I promise, your readers won’t mind—or even notice.

Don’t be worried about repeating the word “asked,” either. It falls into the same category as “said,” in that you can use it over and over again and the reader’s eye will never be drawn to it. It’s there for functionality, not artistic merit.

And really, that last sentence sums up perfectly what dialogue tags are all about. They’re not an opportunity to show off your florid writing. Just let them be unobtrusive and perform their function. If you handle them correctly—by treating them as part of the sentence, avoiding them when unnecessary, and keeping them simple—your readers will hardly notice they exist at all. And that’s the marker of dialogue tag success.

About this Contributor:

Evan Braun is a full-time author and editor. He has authored two novels, the first of which, The Book of Creation, was shortlisted in two categories at the 2012 Word Awards. He has also released a sequel, The City of Darkness (2013), with a third entry in the series due later this year. As a professional editor, Braun has seven years of experience working with Word Alive Press authors. He is also a regular contributor at The Fictorians, a popular writing blog.

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