Thursday 20 December 2012

Dialogue Tags Are Annoying

Most people know how to add dialogue tags at the end of dialogue to identify who’s speaking.

"Look at me,” said Malcolm.

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).
If you found this post useful, please give it a retweet. Cheers.


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

Hey, one thing I do right!!! Awesome...

Stephsco said...

Great reminders here.I work so hard to weed out dialogue tags but sometimes it leads to redunancies; gotta watch for those too.

mooderino said...

@Alex - Writing two best-sellers is also pretty awesome.

@Stephco - A good flow is always the best way forward, often requiring very few tags.

Jeremy Bates said...

"You've been a very, very bad elf," Santa sighed, "and I'll be damned if you'll get anything from me this year, unless you bribe me."

Like that? lol

Merry Christmas!

Shaquanda Dalton said...

cool! I just wrote a post discussing whether or not dialogue tags are necessary. I don't think they are if you can make your character's words speak for themselves.

Gail said...

Wow, this makes it simple.


Wodke Hawkinson said...

Love this article!

mooderino said...

@Jeremy - Santa's so judgemental.

@Shaquanda - action tags also help prevent talking -headitis.

@Gail - cool.

@Wodke - thanks!

Rachna Chhabria said...

My dialogues and dialogue tags are quite okay. I think I manage them well. Its the other things I am stuck with.

Great post, Mooderino.

Merry Christmas.

Paige Lollie said...

Certainly found it useful and a great reminder of how to properly use those tags! Also a great reminder to try an use the dialogue tags a little different. Love to make things a bit different when reading and writing.

Elise Fallson said...

It always helps to read the dialogue out loud. If it makes my eyes squint, then I know I've done something wrong.

sjp said...

Too true what a clever way of identifying dialogue tags that need fixing

mooderino said...

@Rachna - Merry Xmas to you too.

@Paige - a little variety never hurt.

@Elise - as a general rule of thumb, anything that makes your eyes squint tends to mean something's gone wrong.

@sjp - thanks.

Anonymous said...

I like action tags. I'd like to use them more.

mooderino said...

@Medeia - no reason you can't.

Michael Offutt, Phantom Reader said...

Great advice on using quotation marks correctly. Hey Moody, I came across a great writing article and thought I'd link it to you so you could add it to your online magazine. Find it here:

mooderino said...

@Michael - thanks for the link, will add it to the next update. Cheers.

Unknown said...

'Girl Reading' doesn't have any dialogue marks at all and it's quite distracting... but you get used to it!



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