Let us help make your book an unforgettable read!
At some point in our writing careers we all struggle with how to structure dialogue, and how to correctly punctuate dialogue. We’re providing a handy reference on this topic.
Let’s set some groundwork before we delve into the discussion. First, what is a dialogue tag and why is it necessary?
Dialogue tags are indicators in the writing that point out who is speaking. They are necessary for clarity.
There are two styles of tagging dialogue. One with dialogue tags, and one that uses action to tag the dialogue. Examples:
Today’s discussion focuses on Dialogue Tags. For more information on effective action tagging, check out Using Action to Tag Dialogue.
So with a dialogue tag, there are two rules that never change:
Let’s look at rule #1. The verb used to say “someone did this” must be verbal. It is easier to show the difference than to try to spell it out. The verb being used as a tag is underlined below.
“I want candy, Mom,” Tommy whined.
whined is something that is done verbally. The sound, the effect, the action, comes out of the voice box and throat.
“I want candy, Mom,” Tommy pouted for effect.
pouted is not done verbally. Pouted is an attitude. It often includes whining, it can include other verbal actions, but pouted is not verbal. Therefore, it is inappropriate to use it as a tag.
To go with a less-grey example and make it more obvious:
“I’m done here,” Brad stomped his foot.
Clearly stomped has absolutely no verbal connection at all. When using these types of verbs, the tagging needs to be set up as an action tag. (see Using Action to Tag Dialogue)
Onto rule #2 – if it feels over the top or excessive, it probably is. Like all other aspects of writing, dialogue should not be over-written. To make it “interesting” authors often try to change up the verbal tags, and this often makes it excessive. To exemplify this, we need a longer dialogue exchange:
“I want candy, Mom,” Tommy whined.
Mom retorted, “Not today, son.”
“But I really really want candy,” Tommy exclaimed.
“I said no,” Mom shouted.
“Mom,” Tommy raged.
“Absolutely not with that attitude,” Mom objected.
Each verb is an oral ability. However, the passage seems to “one-up” itself with each new dialogue tag. The whining has already been stated in the first sentence. As the passage continues, it’s clear they are arguing. I left out a lot of the common punctuation that usually accompanies these types of set ups so as not to mix what I’m discussing, but the punctuation often conveys exactly what the dialogue tag says. (see Punctuating Dialogue Tags)
Avoid this. It makes the writing feel forced, if nothing else. Let the surrounding writing and other craft tools establish and carry the exchange.
This leads to a third rule that often is touted, but is, frankly, incorrect.
Said is invisible.
No. “Said” is not invisible. It is only invisible when it is scattered throughout a manuscript and used on occasion.
Like every other word available for use, when said is used back-to-back, it stands out, glaringly, as redundant. Example:
“I want candy, Mom,” Tommy said.
Mom said, “Sorry, not today.”
“But I have to have it for school treats,” Tommy said.
“No you don’t. Cupcakes work just fine,” Mom said.
Tommy said, “I hate cupcakes, Mom.”
Often authors won’t be quite this obvious with “said”. They’ll scatter a bit of action in between the dialogue, they’ll leave off tags that are unnecessary. But when you look at the page, or even the full scene, the vast majority of tags are the word said. And at that point, it is no longer invisible.
For more dialogue tips see the following articles:
Using Action to Tag Dialogue
Punctuating Dialogue Tags