Writing Tip: Dialogue Tag DOs and DON’Ts

Today we’re talking about dialogue tags! I already rambled about them in a previous post, but I’m going to ramble some more about them now, so prepare yourself.

 

What is a dialogue tag?

It’s the short phrase you stick after a line of dialogue — i.e., “he said”, “she said”, etc.

 

Simple dialogue tag

Observe the following sentence:

“I love your socks,” he said.

That’s a simple dialogue tag — sentence of dialogue, followed by a dialogue tag. Here are some more:

“Your face is on fire!” she said.

“Are you sure?” he said.

Note:

  • You have to use a punctuation mark at the end of the sentence of dialogue that’s not a period — i.e., comma (most common), question mark (for questions), exclamation mark (for excitement!) — Using a period is effectively ending the sentence, so if you put a period after “I love your socks”, you’re ending the sentence, and then the “he said” is just randomly floating there with no attachment to anything
  • The “he said” or “she said” needs to be decapitalized. If you write something like this — “I love your socks,” He said. — you’re indicating by capitalizing the “he” that either A) God is talking, or B) you’re starting a new sentence and don’t know how to punctuate your sentence of dialogue properly.

 

Dialogue tag before dialogue

Observe:

Staring at her beautiful face, he said, “I’d like to lick your nose.”

So here we’re reversing the order of dialogue and dialogue tag. Note:

  • You need to end the dialogue tag (and thus lead into the dialogue) with a comma or a colon — not a period, question mark, or exclamation mark. Using one of those would indicate the sentence is ending after the word “said”, which means you have a sentence reading: “Staring at her beautiful face, he said.”, which makes no sense at all

 

Dialogue tag in between two pieces of dialogue

Observe:

“How are you doing?” he asked. “Isn’t the weather grand?”

“I wish I could agree with you,” she said, “but I have a ferret up my nose.”

Here we have two variations of “dialogue tag between two pieces of dialogue”. In the first example, we’ve got dialogue with a complete sentence (How are you doing?), and then a second complete sentence of dialogue (Isn’t the weather grand?). Since these are both complete sentences, we put a period after “he asked”. In the second example, the second bit of dialogue is continuing the first bit of dialogue, thus we stick a comma after “she said” to indicate the sentence is still on-going.

 

Using a descriptive sentence instead of a dialogue tag

Observe:

Tracy cleared her throat. “Excuse me, can I please have one albatross-egg omelette, shaken not stirred?”

So here we know that Tracy is speaking, since the first sentence implies fairly heavily that she’s the one talking. It’s not a dialogue tag, because it’s not describing how she’s talking — you can “say”, or “exclaim”, or even “screech” out a sentence, but you certainly can’t “clear your throat” a sentence.

You can also stick the descriptive sentence after the dialogue:

“Where are you going?” Mary pouted at Roger, hoping he would come back and stay with her forever.

Again, “Mary pouted” isn’t a dialogue tag, because you can’t “pout” a sentence. It’s a sentence unrelated to the dialogue, although it still indicates she’s the one talking.

Third example, putting a descriptive sentence between two dialogues:

“My name is Jim.” I’m lying through my teeth, but she doesn’t need to know that. “What’s your name?”

Note:

  • First rule here is that you can’t punctuate dialogue tags and descriptive sentences the same way. If it’s a dialogue tag, it’s attached to the dialogue. If it’s a descriptive sentence, it’s a different sentence entirely from the dialogue. This means you can’t do something like this:

“Hey Bob,” I shake his hand, “what’s cooking?”

  • This is wrong on so many levels. Can you spot them? A) “I shake his hand” isn’t a dialogue tag, so “Hey Bob” should be ending in a period/exclamation mark to indicate the sentence is over ; B) “I shake his hand” needs to end in a period, since it’s a sentence, and sentences don’t end in commas! ; and C) “what’s cooking?” should have “what” capitalized, since it’s the start of a sentence

 

In conclusion …

Dialogue can be really confusing to punctuate!

 

Semi-related media of the day:

In this case, the “problem” referred to in the song is “punctuation rules for dialogue and dialogue tags”.

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Categories: Writing | Tags: , , | 41 Comments

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41 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Dialogue Tag DOs and DON’Ts

  1. Speech tags are sometimes termed ‘apositive clause’ in the more arcane of grammar manuals.

    Which is not to be confused with ‘a positive clause’, which is a section of a sentence used to accurately describe me.

  2. I want to know more about the girl with the ferret up her nose.

  3. Great explanation for a common headache. Off topic, but why is that I watch a minute of this video and it’s suggesting everything by the singers? Then I watch 3 AC/DC music videos in a row and it doesn’t change the suggestions at all. Makes no sense.

  4. Thanks for the great post. I have a question regarding use of elipses in this context. Is the following correct,

    “Hey Bob, is that…” My voice trails off as I notice the tiny dinosaur on his shoulder. “A dinosaur?”

    or would you need:

    “Hey Bob, is that…” My voice trails off as I notice the tiny dinosaur on his shoulder. “…A dinosaur?”

  5. I think you’re my new favorite person in the whole wide world.

    • That’s a bit of an extreme reaction to a post about dialogue tags, but thank you nonetheless 🙂

      • Ay carumba. I’ve read and edited probably 15-20 manuscripts over the past year and a half and it’s amazing how many other writers don’t know the basics of punctuation within dialogue. It’s these kind of little details that self-published authors need to get right, otherwise they lose credibility out there in the real world. That’s why you are my new favorite person in the whole wide world. At least for today.

  6. I had to laugh at some of your examples. 🙂 I’ve taught this lesson for years, and I still like the silliness of it all.

  7. Nice examples. 🙂

  8. Funny — I’m always inclined to quibble with writing rules like “Never start a novel with weather,” or “Kill your darlings.” (What — ALL of them?). But the niceties of punctuation in dialogue — it’s important to get those right if you want to maintain your writer’s cred. You did a great job of explaining it all, and those examples are memorable!

    • Thanks 🙂 And there are always ways you can play around with this kind of thing — unorthodox but acceptable dialogue tags, adding in ellipses and dashes to bungle things up, etc. — but at the end of the day you have to have SOME semblance of grammatical competence in order to produce something publish-worthy.

  9. This post saved my life! At first, I laughed about at the “face on fire” example. Then I said, “But what if MY face is on fire?” So I looked in the mirror, and, holy crap, it was. I ran to my chocolate soy fondue fountain and used it to extinguish the flames (plus I was a bit thirsty anyway).

    All I can say, Michelle, is “Thank you.”

    Well, I can also say, “Would you consider marrying an otter?”

    • But to say such a thing would be very silly indeed, and there’s no place for silliness in my United Kingdom of Semi-Rotten Bananas Pending Further Refrigeration.

      • In light of this new information, everything I said has been rendered nonsensical. You did not save my life, I did not extinguish flames in a soy fountain, and my face could still be on fire. But mirrors have been rendered non-existent by this new information as well, so I’ll never know.

        Damn you, Proulx, with your non-intuitive sequence of letters in your last name!

  10. If you ever want to read something that makes you go blind/wish you were, the Eye of Argon breaks every dialogue tag rule you’ve ever known. (It’s something of a cult classic… I actually had to buy myself a copy just because it was so good/bad).

    An example from the book (pg. 60, chapter 6):

    “Aye! The ways of our civilization are in many ways warped and distorted, but what is your calling,” she queried, bustily?

    Yes, that question mark is at the end of the dialogue tag. And I’ve no idea how you query -anything- bustily, but it still makes for some interesting images. Especially when you stop every so often and wonder why the author was asking you whether or not someone asked something.

  11. Reblogged this on chrismcmullen and commented:
    Some good examples with dialog tags.

  12. Nice and helpful, I’m usually pretty good with these, but the descriptive sentences being handled differently than dialogue tags, in regards to punctuation, is one of those things that I always stumble over!

    • Yeah, they’re tough — especially because a lot of authors will use them interchangeably with dialogue tags, which is technically correct but stylistically fun, so it gets really confusing.

  13. “he said” or “she said” can be used too often (I.E. it is not required when it is clear who is doing the speaking.

    • True enough. And then there’s cases where there are too many strings of dialogue with no tags, and you don’t have a clue who’s speaking and have to just bluff it.

  14. Reblogged this on theowlladyblog.

  15. Ryan M. Church

    Reblogged this on The Way of the Storyteller:.

  16. One thing that seriously annoys me when it comes to dialogue tags is when writers, in their attempt to avoid filling their books with too much “said”, and instead of using creative methods like some of what you provided above, use a lot of other speech tags like “muttered, growled, protested, gasped, etc.” to the point where it just seems that they’re trying way too hard to avoid “said” and it just becomes irksome. =/

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