Literary Q&A: What Good Writers Know About Tags (Series #4)

Question: I’m editing my book, but what do I do with tags?

This week an author friend of mine expressed some confusion on the topic of tags in his novel. I asked, Is your issue with tag punctuation, the difference between action tags and dialogue tags, acceptable dialogue tags, or something else? I could go over them all in one post, that would probably be handy.  

His answer? Yes, please! As visual as possible.

Okay, here we go. First, I have written about tags quite a bit already, so I am going to copy some previous post sections here to get everything about tags in one place.

First, What is a tag?

The tag is a specific bit of narrative that comes after (sometimes before or the middle of) a sentence(s) of dialogue, that denotes the speaker of said dialogue by speech or action.

~WikiJenn

There are two types of tags:

Dialogue tags and action tags.

The dialogue tag:

This tag (or set of words) tells you that someone said, whispered, shouted, yelled, or cried out, something. The dialogue tag is part of the sentence, along with the dialogue, so the dialogue ends with a comma (or question mark, or exclamation point) and the tag begins with a lower-case letter.

For example:

“My pen is out of ink,” she said.

In that sentence, “she said,” is your dialogue tag. Do you see how “she said” is part of the sentence? That’s why the dialogue ends with a comma. When you use an exclamation point or question mark, the dialogue tag is still part of the sentence, so the tag still begins with a lower-case letter, like this:

“Look out!” he shouted.

When it comes to choosing dialogue tags, use “said,” or “asked,” as much as possible. “Said” is considered a non-word that your brain doesn’t actually read. It is skimmed over and automatically understood, and doesn’t halt the flow of conversation. However, using other dialogue tags causes the reader to have to slow down and “read” the words instead of “understanding” them. So, use “said” to keep the pace in your dialogue quick and simple.

To add variety, it is tempting use words like “assured,” “consoled,” “joked” or “informed.” It was used widely in an older style of writing that contemporary English says is redundant. Some still think that “said is dead,” but that’s an older way of thinking. Others argue that the only tags to be used are “said,” “asked,” and maybe “replied,” or “stated.” (Some people believe that there should be NO dialogue tags at all.)

As far as what is allowed in dialogue tags: You should use words like said and whispered–ways that people speak. If it isn’t a way people speak, it is an action tag. Some people use words like sighed, growled, laughed as dialogue tags, but those are, in fact, considered one-time actions that have a recognizable sound of their own and happen before or after the dialogue.

For example:

“He isn’t coming home.” She sighed.

You can probably sigh a word, but you wouldn’t sigh this whole sentence. It’s comical. Like you don’t laugh a whole sentence. Therefore, the sigh is a one-time action that happens after she speaks. You can have her sigh beforehand, or even in the middle of the sentence, but in each instance, it is an action. The same goes for laugh, hurrumph, gasp, etc.

There are other words that describe how a piece of dialogue is given and they can be redundant. You want to let the conversation stand for itself, and trust the reader to know what the character is saying. You wouldn’t say,

“Why did the chicken cross the road?” he joked. 

Because we already know it’s a joke–we read it. In context, jokes are usually pretty clear. The only time I would explain a piece of dialogue, is if it contains info that the reader does NOT know. Like:

“I found my things in your room, did you take them?”

“No,” he lied. “I was at the store.”

In that case we probably don’t know if he did or not and this lets the reader know he’s lying, or the other character thinks he’s lying. But if the character is reassuring someone, you don’t need the tag to say “He reassured her.” 

Some situations where it might work to use a descriptive word with dialogue is if it adds to the readers’ understanding of the scene.

If the bad guy says something nice, you could have them “spit” it, or “sneer” it, or “snap” at them. You aren’t describing what he said or did, but his attitude about it, how he delivered the dialogue. It shows the reader whether he is being complimentary, or disagreeable. Or if he’s making fun of the other speaker. It shows his motivation and delivery, and it helps the reader see the scene better.

Instead of “ask” I have seen writers use “question,” but the only time you want to use that is if you are questioning someone as in police questioning, or in a mystery. It denotes one person asking many questions of another party in a demanding tone. Not usually what you mean when Mom “questions” her daughter about her day at school. Although if the daughter is a teen, they might feel like they’re being questioned–complete with dark room, folding chair, and spotlight. Lol.

Said, asked, whispered, shouted, yelled, screamed, cried out, etc. should be your most often used dialogue tags.

The action tag:

This tag is a full sentence of its own, that describes an action of the speaker. With action tags, the dialogue ends in a period (Or question mark or exclamation point), and the tag begins with a capital letter.

For example:

“Hi. Nice to meet you.” Julie smiled and held out her hand.

The sentence after the dialogue tells us that Julie is the speaker of the line, and what actions she is taking. The action tag is NOT part of the sentence with the dialogue. It is a new sentence.

To be clear, even though there is an action, if the tag says anything about them “saying” the dialogue, it is still a dialogue tag.

“That way to the beach,” he said as he pointed down the street and flexed his bicep.

But switch around just a few words, and the same sentence becomes an action tag. For example:

“That way to the beach.” He pointed down the street as he said it, and flexed his bicep.

Action tags are used to tell us, without using big chunks of narrative, what’s happening in a conversation. (You don’t always need either tag, but do remind us who is speaking at least every half-page of dialogue, or if there are more than two people conversing.)

For example:

“Hi.” Jill rested her head on the doorjamb with a sniffle.

“I heard you weren’t doing well, so I brought you some soup.” Barbara held out a thermos with one hand and a plate with the other. “I made these cookies, too. Your favorite.”

Jill brightened and took the proffered gifts. “Thanks for stopping by, Barb. I appreciate it.”

The action tags tell us what is going on without telling us they “said” anything. Notice, with the action tag, the dialogue does end in a period.

This issue is very important and I see it done wrong on many occasions. The speaker of a piece of dialogue MUST be the subject of the dialogue OR action tag that follows it.

For example:

“Hey! How’s it going?” Suzie asked, placing her lunch tray on the table. (dialogue tag)

“Pretty good.” Jill pulled a sandwich from her lunchbox. (action tag)

“Did you pass that chem test?” Suzie broke her brownie in two, offering half to her friend. (action)

“Nah. I didn’t even study,” Jill said, taking the brownie half, and tossed Suzie her cheetos. (dialogue)

Each line of dialogue above has either a dialogue tag (denotes who’s speaking with “said” or “asked”), or an action tag (also denotes the speaker but gives an action rather than assign the speaker only).

But it would be INCORRECT to say:

“Hey! How’s it going?” Suzie asked Jill, placing her lunch tray on the table.

“Pretty good.” Suzie watched Jill pull a sandwich from her lunchbox. (We expect dialogue to change speaker with the next line. If a person says two lines in row, make sure they are connected with a tag between them. Since this is a new line, this makes it Jill’s turn to speak, so she should be the subject of the tag. In this case, Suzie has the verb in “Suzie watched,” so Suzie is the subject. Make sense?)

“Did you pass that chem test?” Jill took half of Suzie’s brownie while she asked her friend. (Here, from the conversation above, Suzie should be asking the question, so she again needs to be the subject with the verb. Here it is “Jill took” and even though it says Suzie “asked her friend,” because Jill is the subject, it sounds like Jill said it. This confuses readers. Make sure to give each person their own line to respond.)

Now if you are breaking a sentence in half and you use a dialogue tag, it’s easy; there are commas to show it’s all one sentence. Like this:

“Before you go to bed,” she said, “brush your teeth.”

If you are interjecting an action in the middle of the sentence, you use dashes like this:

“On your way to the bus,”–he handed her a bag and thermos–“look at the new billboard on Side Street.”

If you have a tag in between two pieces of dialogue and the first piece can be made into a sentence of its own, The “dialogue tag sentences” look like this:

“I think I see it,” she said. “Yes, it’s up ahead.”

Similarly, the “action tag sentences” work the same way. (Complete the dialogue and tag, then add the next line.) Like this:

“Swear to me.” She crossed her own heart. “Tell me you’re on our side.”

In conclusion, the issue of tag punctuation is that a comma goes with dialogue tags and a period with action tags; the difference between action tags and dialogue tags is that dialogue tags tell us someone “said” something while action tags tell us they “did” something; and the most acceptable dialogue tags are: said, yelled, whispered, shouted, and cried.

I hope you found something you can use and that this clears up any questions you might have had. Let me know if you have any more. And if I missed something, put it in the comments below, or message me through the contact page.

Until next weekend,

~jenn

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