Last week, we discussed how to write effective dialogue. This week, we’ll discuss how to tag dialogue. A dialogue tag identifies who the speaker is and, sometimes, the manner in which he has spoken. “John said” is a dialogue tag. Let’s look at an example of how not to tag dialogue:
“Just be like that,” she pouted.
“Oh, come on,” he groaned. “Not this again.”
“You don’t love me,” she replied.
“Right,” he snarled. “That’s why I bought you an eight hundred dollar diamond."
“Here,” she sobbed. “Just take it back. Take it.”
Okay, what’s wrong with our sample above—other than being melodramatic? It’s an ailment I like to call “Creative Dialogue Tag Syndrome”—the writer relies on creative tags such as pouted, groaned, replied, snarled, sobbed, and so forth so the reader will know how to interpret the dialogue. What’s wrong with this? Let me count the things:
- The reader must interpret the tag and evaluate if the dialogue agrees with the tag. At best, it disrupts the flow. At worst, the reader decides the two are contradictory and the writer loses credibility.
- It’s telling the reader how the words are said instead of showing by action.
- If the dialogue is well written and the accompanying action is well chosen, it’s redundant.
- It’s annoying.
- It is, in many cases, just downright wrong. If the verb used as part of the dialogue tag is not synonymous with “said,” “asked,” “whispered” or “exclaimed,” it should not be used as a tag. It’s physically impossible to “smile” a word. Therefore, “smile”—and other such verbs—should never be used as part of a dialogue tag. Instead, use it in a separate sentence: “I love Sundays.” She smiled.
Shelly’s lower lip quivered. “Just be like that.”
“Oh, come on.” Mike scowled. “Not this again.”
“You don’t love me.”
“Right,” he said. “That’s why I bought you an eight-hundred-dollar diamond.”
“Here.” She jerked off the ring and shoved it under his nose. “Just take it back.” Her voice wavered. “Take it.”
Okay, so nothing’s going to help our melodrama, but let’s examine the techniques used. We scrapped every creative dialogue tag. Every one. We replaced each with one of four techniques:
- No tag at all. This allows the power of the words to stand alone. As long as we know who’s speaking, no law says we must use a tag.
- Action. “Shelly’s lower lip quivered” replaces “she pouted.” It’s more specific, it allows us to visualize Shelly, and it’s showing, not telling. This is preferable to using a tag.
- Invisible tags. Use the prosaic “said.” Yes, “said” is boring. It’s overused. In fact, it’s so boring and overused that it’s invisible. Just like “the” and “a” and “his” and other parts of speech that are used several times on each page, “said” slides right past the reader and allows him to concentrate on what’s important—the action and the dialogue.
- A combination of “said” and action. This is particularly effective when interrupting dialogue, as in the last sentence of the “after” example above.
Let’s also talk about correct punctuation. If a tag (“he said”) is used, a comma separates the dialogue from the tag. If action only (no tag at all, as in the first sentence in the example) is used, it’s considered a separate and complete sentence and should be punctuated as such.
Note: “I love you,” she smiled, is never correct. “Smiled” cannot be a tag; it’s an action. Therefore, it can be written one of two ways: “I love you,” she said and smiled. - or - “I love you.” She smiled.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools a writer has to convey character and to build plot. Learn to use it effectively, and it will become the best friend you ever had.
© 2016 by Sandy Tritt. All rights reserved. This blog article is an excerpt from The PLAIN ENGLISH Writer’s Workbook (LINK)