Articles / On Dialogue

Dialogue Tags, Part II

In my earlier article, Dialogue Tag Primer, we looked at the basics of punctuating dialogue tags, some commonly accepted rules to what constitutes a dialogue tag and what is a creative tag, and the challenge to generally use fewer tags in your writing.

In this segment, we’ll talk more in depth about some other types of punctuation, how the placement of dialogue tags affects pacing, and how replacing the redundancy of creative dialogue tags with smart narrative tightens up your story.

Em Dashes and Ellipses:

So, let’s get right to it. In normal conversational dialogue, there are commas between the words being said and the tag identifying the speaker—unless there’s a question being asked or an exclamation being made, in which case you’d obviously want to use a question mark or any exclamation point.

But what about when your speaker is cut off in the middle of her sentence?

Sam turned to Hope, stunned. “I really have no idea what—”

“You certainly do know what I’m talking about, you liar!” Hope screeched.

In this case we’ve used an em dash at the end of Sam’s sentence to indicate the sharp cut off of her words by the interruption of Hope’s words.

However, if your speaker trails off, an em dash is not the correct punctuation.

Sam sat alone, crushed. “I really don’t have any idea…”*

Here we’ve used an ellipsis to indicate that Sam has paused in her speech, but her thought is not complete. Nothing has interrupted her, not even herself—at least not that we’re aware of.

But what would happen if Sam had interrupted herself?

Sam sat alone, crushed. “I really have no idea—” She froze with a squeak as it all came back to her.

Here, Sam has interrupted her own dialogue with her actions. Since her words are stopped, the em dash is used with her words. But what about when there’s interruptive action in the middle of speech?

Sam sat alone, crushed. “I really have no idea”—she tapped her finger against her chin—“what Hope is talking about.”

Notice that the em dashes are now attached to the action as opposed to the dialogue. This is because the dialogue flows uninterrupted, but the author wants the reader to see Sam tapping her chin at that exact moment in her speech.

*In my example, you’ll notice that I didn’t include any additional punctuation with my ellipsis. When quoting or paraphrasing written work, there are indeed rules to follow regarding additional punctuation, such as periods when the omitted material is at the end of the sentence, but in dialogue, there’s a little more leeway. Some authors like to have a question mark after an ellipsis if the phrase indicates a question was being implied. Some authors like to put the comma after the ellipsis if the dialogue tag were to follow the phrase that trailed off. I’m of the belief that three dots are plenty of punctuation.

 

Placement and Pacing:

Yes, it’s true. Where you place your dialogue tag can affect the pacing of your sentence or your paragraph. And depending on your style as an author, it can affect your story as a whole.

Dialogue tags can either come before, after, or right in the middle of the dialogue. I think an even mix of before and after keeps your story flowing smoothly, but a dialogue tag stuck smack dab in the middle of the words stops the flow of the dialogue. Every time.

And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Depending on the tone and feel of the scene, you could very well want a character’s words stopped and started and interrupted. It makes things choppy, adds a little bit of adrenaline to the scene, but that doesn’t mean it slows the pacing. Since it usually increases in the energy, it could actually speed up the pace.

“What do you mean by that?” he asked with a snarl. “I’m not the one who got caught!”

But what you don’t want to do is have line after line of dialogue interrupted by a tag. Used for effect, it’s a great tool. But when used gratuitously, like anything else, it loses that effect.

 

Replacing Redundant Tags:

Nothing says redundant like:

“You’re right!” she agreed, nodding her head.

But you’d be surprised how many authors write some form of that exact sentence. Stepping away from the redundancy of her head—because you can’t really nod anything else—let’s focus on the rest. The creative dialogue tag she agreed is redundant because the dialogue itself tells the reader she’s agreeing. Let’s look at another one:

“It’s true,” she admitted.

This is another one editors see often, and you can guess why it’s redundant, right? So what is my suggestion to authors when I see this kind of redundancy? Extrapolate on the tag and give me some descriptive narrative instead. Basically, show me that her words are an admittance.

At once, the fight left her and she sagged like a deflated balloon. Her eyes, once stormy and full of fire, grew sad, but I only caught a glimpse before she cast them to the floor. “It’s true,” she said, shaking her head. “It’s true.”

Yeah, sure, it’s more words. But I’d rather read more words that paint a picture than redundant words that tell versus show. Using narrative this way, you build layers into your character, and they become multi-dimensional and more realistic to your readers.

This wraps up part two series on dialogue tags. If there’s something you’d like us to feature or you have a question about something specific, please leave a comment! We’d love to hear from you!

Happy writing!


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