We covered the basics of punctuating dialogue in a previous post, covering when to use a comma between a dialogue line and a dialogue tag and when to use a period, as well as how to treat dialogue lines that end in an ellipsis or dash. Now, let’s zero in on the dialogue tag and investigate what it is, how it works, and how you can use it to best effect in your fiction.
What Is a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag refers to the subject and verb that identify who is speaking. For example:
“Sometimes I have dreams about Sriracha,” Jane said.
In this example, Jane is the subject, said is the verb, and Jane said is the dialogue tag.
If you have more than two characters in a scene, and all of them are speaking, each line will need a dialogue tag, unless some internal clue clearly identifies the speaker. If there are just two speaking characters in a scene, you can let a few lines bounce back and forth between them without including the tags. See, for example, this exchange from the opening pages of Lee Child’s Night School:
The guy shook his hand and kept hold of his elbow, and said, “I hear you’re getting new orders.”
Reacher said, “No one told me. Not yet. Where did you hear that?”
“My top sergeant. They all talk to each other. U.S. Army NCOs have the world’s most efficient grapevine. It always amazes me.”
“Where do they say I’m going?”
“They don’t know for sure. But not far. Within driving distance, anyway. Apparently the motor pool got a requisition.”
“When am I supposed to find out?”
“Thank you,” Reacher said. “Good to know.”
In this scene, Jack Reacher is the one asking questions, and the unnamed “guy” is the one answering them, which helps us keep track of whose line is whose. Even so, Child doesn’t go more than half a dozen turns before adding a dialogue tag. When in doubt, include the dialogue tag because you never want your reader to have to scan back up a page to figure out who is speaking.
Keep the Dialogue Tag Itself Simple
Now, let’s look more closely at the basic components of a dialogue tag. The subject is straightforward: generally you will be choosing between using a character’s name and using a pronoun (he, she). In the Night School example above, both characters are male, so Child uses “Reacher” rather than “he” in the dialogue tag.
The verb gives you more creative latitude, but this is one case where you should exercise restraint. Most of the time, you want your dialogue tag to disappear, allowing the reader to focus on the dialogue itself. The tag should be just enough to allow the reader to mentally attach the dialogue line to the correct speaker. In most cases, then, you want to stick with “said” and “asked.” These plain vanilla verbs don’t draw attention to themselves the way words like “exclaimed” or “queried” do.
Save the dramatic verbs for moments when you really need them – when you need a character to shout or whisper or scream, and when you want the reader to sit up and take notice.
Use the Spaces in between Dialogue Lines
Time for the fun to begin! I want to show you now just how much information you can sneak into the little cracks between dialogue lines with the help of your handy little dialogue tags and their more complex stand-ins. Below is an excerpt from Lara Elena Donnelly’s clever new fantasy novel, Amberlough. I’ve simplified the passage to include only the dialogue and tags.
“Maybe you ought to move in there,” Cordelia said. “You don’t take care of yourself. You’d sell your own ma if it’d bring in a bigger crowd.”
Malcolm said, “My old man, maybe. But never Ma. She was—”
“The jewel of the peninsula, I know,” she said. “The finest dancer in Hyrosia.”
“She would’ve loved to see you,” he said.
This is chapter two, and we have just been introduced to Cordelia and Malcolm a page earlier, so we don’t yet know much about them. The exchange itself gives us a few cues: that Cordelia may be worried about Malcolm, and that Malcolm speaks frequently and fondly of his mother.
Now, take a look at the original to see how much more information Donnelly weaves into the conversation.
“Maybe you ought to move in there.” She came back to bed and flung herself across the sheets. A breeze, fresh with high tide brine, rolled through the room. Cordelia shivered and moved into the warm curve of Malcolm’s body.
“You don’t take care of yourself,” she said, but she didn’t put much into it. Half a shake of the head, a rueful smile. “You’d sell your own ma if it’d bring in a bigger crowd.”
Malcolm cuffed her gently on the side of the head. “My old man, maybe. But never Ma. She was—”
“The jewel of the peninsula, I know.” She rested her face on the hard curve of his bicep, staring up at his seamed, stubbled face. “The finest dancer in Hyrosia.”
“She would’ve loved to see you,” he said, drawing a calloused hand through her hair. It caught, but she didn’t complain.
In addition to the information from the conversation itself, we can now picture how Cordelia and Malcolm are positioned, we know that they are somewhere near an ocean, we have some additional details about Malcolm’s appearance, and we get some cues about their physical and emotional relationship. Rather than giving us these details in a dry narrative paragraph in which nothing of substance is happening, Donnelly weaves them into a live scene. This is one way a skilled writer can avoid the dreaded “info dump” at the beginning of a novel.
Note the techniques Donnelly uses here. Many of the dialogue tags are replaced outright with sentences that describe an action:
“Maybe you ought to move in there.” She came back to bed and flung herself across the sheets.
We don’t need the “she said” in there because the action sentence identifies Cordelia as the speaker.
The other technique Donnelly uses is to hang additional phrases off a dialogue tag when she uses one:
“You don’t take care of yourself,” she said, but she didn’t put much into it.
“She would’ve loved to see you,” he said, drawing a calloused hand through her hair.
This is one of my favorite devices and is an especially easy one to carry off. You want your reader to know that your heroine has raven-black hair and sparkling emerald eyes? This is how you do it without resorting to outright description or the awkward device of having her regard herself in a mirror.
“Damnit,” Jane said, pulling her long, raven-black hair into a tighter ponytail. “I forgot to buy more Sriracha sauce!” Her emerald eyes sparked with anger as she considered the bleak night before her.
Keep in mind that filling in the spaces around dialogue lines in this way also slows down the pacing of your scene. That’s fine for set-up scenes, but when you get to dramatic or action scenes, you’ll want to strip the dialogue down to the bare bones to keep the intensity high and the pace fast.
Now, go forth and tag!