Most people know how to add dialogue tags at the end of dialogue to identify who’s speaking.
And sometimes instead of using dialogue tags, we use action tags.
“Look at me.” Malcolm waved his hands over his head.
Both indicate who’s speaking, but the difference, although small, is important. The dialogue ends with a comma in one and a full stop (period) in the other.
Not so hard to figure out. But sometimes we don’t want to put the tag at the end of the dialogue, we want to put it somewhere in the middle. And that’s where the fun starts.
There are many reasons why it might be preferable to not have the tag at the end. To make it clear who’s speaking. To provide a pause in the reader’s mind. To add physical action exactly when it happens. Or just because you feel like it.
If it’s a large block of dialogue it might not be clear who’s speaking if you wait until the end to reveal the speaker. Of course, you could put the tag up front.
Malcolm said, “Look at me.”
That is definitely an acceptable option. One of many.
You can also put the tag in the middle.
“When I’m at home,” said Malcolm, “I wear my slippers.”
But what you can’t do is this:
“When I’m at home,” said Malcolm. “I wear my slippers.”
The reason you can’t do this is because if you were to take the tag away you would be left with:
“When I’m at home. I wear my slippers.” Doesn’t make sense. ‘When I’m at home’ isn’t a complete sentence, so you can’t stick a full stop (period) at the end.
However, if the dialogue has a natural break in it, then you can.
“I’m at home,” said Malcom. “I’m going to wear my slippers.”
If you remove the tag this time, you get:
“I’m at home. I’m going to wear my slippers.”
Which does make sense. That’s the rule you can’t break. If the dialogue is continuous without the tag, you use commas with the tag. If the dialogue has a break in it, then you use a full stop (period).
The tricky part is when you now use an action tag instead of a dialogue tag. If Malcolm raises his hands after saying a particular word (whether it's relevant to the story or just how you see it), then you have no choice but to put the tag in the middle of the dialogue.
“Please don’t,” Malcolm raised his hands, “shoot me.”
The above is correct. It isn’t the only way, but there’s nothing wrong with it. Some people don’t like the way it looks and prefer:
“Please don’t” —Malcolm raised his hands— “shoot me.”
That is also correct, if a little ungainly looking. But this is wrong:
“Please don’t.” Malcolm raised his hands. “Shoot me.”
It’s always wrong. Because if you remove the tag you’ll get nonsensical phrasing, or, as in this case, a completely different meaning from the one intended:
“Please don’t. Shoot me.”
There are some people who just don’t like it. They see the action tag next to dialogue, separated by only a comma and it doesn’t look right to them. And that’s okay. You don’t need to break up dialogue, you can rewrite/restructure it so there are natural breaks where you can slip in your action tags. Or you can change the tag to something like: Malcolm said, raising his hands.
There are lots of ways to do it, some more fashionable than others. One will suit you. But there are also ways not to do it and you need to be aware of that. The best resource is to keep an eye out for how good authors do it in the books you read (although you probably want to avoid using self-published books for this purpose or anything by Cormac McCarthy).
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