#AuthorAdvice: A short guide to dialogue tags

#AuthorAdvice: A short guide to dialogue tags

Dialogue tags help identify the speaker in a dialogue, but they are often a source of distraction for the reader. If you’re wondering if, and when, you should be using dialogue tags, this is your guide!A dialogue tag, also called an attribution, is a small phrase either before, after, or in between the actual dialogue, which identifies the speaker. Without dialogue tags, especially in group conversations, it can become unclear who is saying what, even with proper paragraph breaks. Some examples of where to place dialogue tags in a sentence.

Before: Sarah said, “You should stay.”

After: “You should stay,” Sarah said.

In between: “You,” Sarah said, “should stay.”
In between: “You should stay,” Sarah said. “I want you to.”

In essence, dialogue tags are used to identify a speaker; prevent reader confusion and/or loss of interest; mimic speech’s natural rhythms; make long dialogue sections digestible; elevate, maintain, or break tension; and provide opportunities to insert action or description.

The most-used dialogue tag is “said.” A very rare “asked,” “whispered,” or maybe a “murmured” can find its way into your manuscript, but contemporary writing kindly asks you to lay off everything else. “Said” is a word readers are used to in connection to dialogue. It blends into the story. As soon as you use a word other than “said” to indicate someone is saying something, you draw attention to it, so you’d better make sure there is a need to draw attention to it.

Alternative dialogue tags also get redundant very easily:

“Look out!” Paige shouted.

The exclamation point already shows the reader that Paige is shouting. The entire tag is redundant. Using “said” wouldn’t work in this instance, because Paige is shouting, so what then? You use action tags instead. Action tags, or action beats, are actions of the speaker, which are placed in the same paragraph as the line of dialogue. They identify the speaker without actually naming them.

“Look out!” Paige grabbed her arm.

This way, the reader knows who’s shouting, and the story progresses as well. We stay in the action.

Using dialogue tags should be more like a game of tag than “Simon says.” Their purpose is to tag sentences together, not to insert the character’s name everywhere. Dialogue tags are like punctuation marks, they should be invisible, guide the reader, but they should never get in the way of the story. Do your reader, and your editor, a favor and weed them out as much as possible. You’ll rarely need them, if you have actions to describe.

Photo by Helena Hertz on Unsplash

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