writing Skills for  Dialogue Tags

Using dialogue tags well is one of the writing skills needed for novel writing.

Let's revise the style of tags available to you:

a)    A dialogue tag (Bill said, Joan shouted, he whined) before or after the speech.
b)    An action tag (this is a statement of action that clearly indicated who will speak next.  Once u have it in place, you don’t need the ‘He said’ dialogue tag. For example – Old Bill tossed the sales report folder onto my desk, almost spilling my coffee. “What have you been doing all month – holidaying in the Bahamas?”
c)    No tag at all. This is an option you should explore.  When there are only two people in the conversation, and no possibility of confusion, just leave the line of dialogue untagged, especially if it is a very brief one.
EG:     Dad glared over his glasses at me. “Decided what line of work you’ll try?”
    “No”
    “You don’t think it’s about time you did?”
    “I suppose…”

Dialogue tag writing tips


•    Dialogue tags should be ‘invisible’ to the reader. Sure, those tags are there -  but they must never draw attention away from the words being spoken. The reader should be lost in the conversation, hearing the very voices of the characters. A tag such as ‘she expostulated with consternation’ will drag the reader out of the story and destroy any illusion of reality that the reader has created for him or herself. Remember, it's always about suspension of disbelief.  When the reader can forget that it is really just squiggles on a page with pointers such as he said to show the way, then they are deeply immersed in the story. Keep them under. Don't let clunky dialogue tags bring them to the surface.


•    Writers who believe that tags should have variety will be distraught to learn that by far the best and most ‘invisible’ tag is the familiar old ‘he said,’ or ‘George said’. Others in the same category are ‘he replied’ and ‘he asked’. Bear in mind that ‘he questioned’ is really an action, and not suitable as a dialogue tag. The correct tags are ‘asked’ or ‘inquired’. So, one sure sign of a novice writer - quite often inspired by primary school lessons - is when 'said' hardly ever appears and , instead, we get postulated, cried, exclaimed, badgered, argued, demanded, explicated, reiterated, repeated...anything but said!


•    It is hard to resist the occasional more specific tag such as ‘he grumbled’ or ‘John whispered,’ but examine each instance to ensure that it adds something valuable to the meaning. Take care with verbs such as ‘he barked’ or ‘she hissed’. Remember that someone can’t bark four lines of text....it pertains to a single word or very few. Similarly, it is impossible to hiss words that aren’t sibilant; for example,  ‘You blasted big-headed caricature of a human being!” is not hissable.


•    Novice writers should ensure that the ‘dialogue tag’ they have chosen is not, in fact, an action tag. Actions can‘t say words and should not be connected to dialogue with a comma as a dialogue tag. Thus, the following  sentence is wrong:

“I want nothing to do with you,” she rejected his advances with a shake of her head.

An action tag connected with a comma prior to the dialogue is also wrong: He grabbed a sandwich off the tray, “I’m as hungry as a horse.” In each case, that comma should be a period (full stop).
To reiterate:
All true dialogue tags must be connected to the speech with a comma.
    “Come over here,” Joan said.
    Joan said, “Come over here.”
BUT action tags are compete sentences and must finish with a period (full stop), never a comma.
    Joan waved her hand at me. “Come over here.”
    Bill was not convinced. “Shouldn’t we wait and see the results first?”

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Move on to PUNCTUATING DIALOGUE