Dialogue Tag Primer
Sometimes it’s good to just get back to the basics when it comes to writing, so I decided to tackle an area that has some set rules and yet also some guidelines or schools of thought that can vary. Dialogue tags fall into this category because while capitalization and punctuation around a dialogue tag is generally rule-driven, what constitutes a dialogue tag and how often to use them is more open to opinion.
Let’s start with some rules. Generally speaking, a dialogue tag is separated from the dialogue with a comma. Said comma goes on the inside of the quotation marks if the dialogue comes first:
“Stop bothering me while I’m eating my dinner,” Tony said.
If you’re nodding and saying, “Of course it does!” that’s fabulous. For every five who nod, there’s someone who doesn’t know this rule.
If your character is asking a question, the question mark replaces the comma inside the quotation marks. Similarly, if your character is yelling or exclaiming, the exclamation point would assume the same position:
“Are you crazy?” Fred asked.
“Go away!” Susie yelled.
However, if the dialogue tag comes first, the comma comes after the tag and before the quotation marks, regardless of the punctuation at the end of the sentence:
Sarah said to Sam, “Don’t tell my mom about the F in French, okay?”
There are other rules to punctuation, such as interruptive dialogue tags and interruptive action, but I’m going to save that for a follow-up article where we’ll discuss the pros and cons of interruptive actions and tags, as well as other topics.
When it comes to dialogue tags, I am of the belief that less is more. There are editors out there who will tell you that you don’t need to monitor your tags, but I think it’s a disservice to all authors. Smart use of the proper tags cuts out excess clutter in your manuscript, streamlines your story, and makes it easier to read. It also encourages you to enhance your narrative rather than relying on tags.
So what do I mean by proper dialogue tags? Technically, a dialogue tag should indicate the way a word is spoken—it should only describe the speaking of the word, not the emotions or the feelings around the word. The rule of thumb we use is “If I can _____ the dialogue with my mouth,” then the tag is acceptable. Confused? Here’s an example.
Is say a dialogue tag? Yes—I can say the dialogue with my mouth.
Is agree a dialogue tag? No—I cannot agree the dialogue with my mouth.
Is yell dialogue tag? Yes—I can yell the dialogue with my mouth.
Is sigh a dialogue tag? Oh, good question! Sigh is one of the sometimes yes/sometimes no tags. If you just think about it, you can sigh the word okay effortlessly. But you cannot sigh an entire sentence. So, sigh is acceptable for short, usually one-word, phrases. What other words do you think fall into this category?
These “tags that aren’t tags” are what editors call creative dialogue tags. Obviously you can use whatever word you want in your own book. That’s your right. But most editors will steer you away from the creative ones—or at least suggest you use them in moderation. What I try to point out is many of them are redundant—like agree, argue, consent, disagree, etc. From the dialogue, the intent is usually clear, so indicating it again with a creative tag isn’t necessary.
And that old saying about said being invisible is pretty true. At least for me. I don’t notice them when I’m reading for pleasure; I just use them to help identify who’s speaking, which is the point. What I do notice is the overabundance of creative tags more and more often. And I consider that almost a crutch—instead of spending the time showing me what the speaker is feeling or intending with actions or setting, it’s being spoon fed to me through a tag. Don’t tell me MarySue pouted her words. Show me her crossed arms and sad face, her dramatic exit, her whiny voice, her drawn-out words, and her wobbly lip.
This brings me to my last point in this primer—how often to use them. The function of a dialogue tag is to indicate to the reader who is speaking. In essence, if narrative is written just so, dialogue tags don’t even need to be used. One of my favorite writing exercises is writing a scene with multiple characters and no tags at all. It’s a challenge, sure. But imagine how precise you’d have to be with your scene, how meticulous with your word choices and placement.
When it comes to tags, less really is more. If your dialogue or surrounding details makes it clear who’s speaking, then there’s no need for a tag. Put your effort into crafting meaningful narrative so your story flows smoothly without them.
Next time we’ll look at more punctuation and structure of dialogue tags and see how to take those creative tags and weave some interesting narrative instead.