Tag! You’re it! Or is it who’s on first?

More on tags, don’t we love them? Tags are a great way to help your reader determine who’s speaking. For a quick lowdown on what tags are, please refer to this link.

Without going into great detail, the bottom line is tags should be attached to the dialogue.  That means putting both the dialogue and tag in the same paragraph. Rather than providing a long drawn out lecture, let’s just look at a few examples. 🙂

Example 1:

Bridgette twirled in circles. “I love dancing.”
Carrie watched from a distance.

*By putting Bridgette’s dialogue in the same paragraph as her actions, the reader knows Bridgette is the speaker and not Carrie.

Example 2:

Bridgette twirled in circles.
“I love dancing.” Carrie watched from a distance.

*This shows Carrie speaking.

Example 3:

*Generally speaking, you don’t have to put a dialogue tag on every line. If it’s a volley, it’s assumed that the characters are taking turns speaking even without tags.

Bridgette twirled in circles. “I love dancing.” BRIDGETTE
Carrie watched from a distance. “Do you have to spin so fast?” CARRIE
“Yes!” BRIDGETTE
“Fine. Make yourself sick.” CARRIE

Example 4:

*If for some reason a character speaks out of turn, some kind of tag is needed, whether  action tags or dialogue tags, though a simple ‘said’ or ‘asked’ is sufficient.

Bridgette twirled in circles. “I love dancing.” BRIDGETTE
Carrie watched from a distance. “Do you have to spin so fast?” CARRIE
“Yes!” BRIDGETTE
“Fine. Make yourself sick.” CARRIE
Carrie glowered at Bridgette. “That’s it. I’m leaving.” CARRIE

Example 5:

*An action separating two separate pieces of dialogue is not always sufficient to show who’s talking.

Bridgette twirled in circles. “I love dancing.” BRIDGETTE
Carrie watched from a distance. “Do you have to spin so fast?” CARRIE
“Yes!” BRIDGETTE
“Fine. Make yourself sick.” CARRIE
Carrie glowered at Bridgette.
“Alright. Let’s go.” WHO’S TALKING?

VERSUS

Bridgette twirled in circles. “I love dancing.” BRIDGETTE
Carrie watched from a distance. “Do you have to spin so fast?” CARRIE
“Yes!” BRIDGETTE
“Fine. Make yourself sick.” CARRIE
Carrie glowered at Bridgette.
“Alright. Let’s go,” Bridgette said. BRIDGETTE

Hope this helps.

Show -Versus- Tell: Why he asked and she said.

It’s been almost two weeks since my last confession…I mean post.

Anyway, in a previous post, I mentioned that typically readers overlook dialogue tags such as ‘asked’ and ‘said.’ This time let’s look at dialogue tags from the show versus tell perspective.

For starters, descriptive dialogue tags are lazy ways to evoke a response. And it’s telling. What do I mean by descriptive dialogue tags?

  • teased
  • interrupted
  • threatened
  • pouted
  • and many more

Rather than creative dialogue tags, a writer can convey a certain feeling to the reader by showing. So, let’s look at some examples.

  • “You like that, don’t you?” Sue teased. TELLING
  • Mischief twinkled in Sue’s eyes as her lips twitched into a smile. “You like that, don’t you? SHOWING

Telling that Sue teased leaves the dialogue lacking. What about Sue was teasing? If you show, you don’t have to tell your readers; the readers can decide for themselves.

  • “But I don’t–”
    “I’ve had just about enough of this,” Bret said. SHOWING
  • “But I don’t–”
    “I’ve had just about enough of this,” Bret interrupted. TELLING

The em dash already implies an interruption. Why bother telling what’s already self-explanatory? Give your readers some respect and treat them like they can actually think for themselves.

A technique I use, since I like visuals, is to close my eyes and play out the scene. What are the characters doing while speaking? What expressions are on their faces? Then, I write it.

Sometimes writers need to trust their readers. Let the readers make up their own mind without forcing them to understand what you’re trying to tell instead of show.

Dialogue Tags -Versus- Action Tags

Getting the dialogue just right can be tough a times. Just when it seems like the speech is perfect and authentic, up pops the decision between action and dialogue tags. Which is better? Well let’s take a look at the tags.

Dialogue Tag

These little labels come either before or after the speech to indicate the speaker talking.

Examples:

  • he said
  • she asked
  • they hollered
  • Bob hissed
  • Jill gushed

Though dialogue tags can be creative, really fiction writers should limit it to “she said” “he asked.” Why? Because readers overlook the words said and asked. Anything else, and it may break up the flow of the writing, causing the reader to mentally flinch and have to reread the passage. That’s not to say a writer should never, ever use dialogue tags other that “said” and “asked.” Once in a blue moon, something else might, MIGHT, be warranted.

Dialogue tags and punctuation

Sometimes it’s easier to show with examples, so here goes.

  • “You have no idea,” she said.
  • He said, “You have no idea.”
  • “Do you have any idea?” she asked.
  • She asked, “Do you have any idea?”

Now the rules

  1. The tag “asked” goes with a question. Some even think one should use “said” in this case as the question mark (?) implies a question.
  2. Separate the dialogue tag and speech with a comma, not a period. ‘”You have no idea.” She asked.’ is wrong!
  3. If the dialogue tag is at the end of the sentence, do not capitalize it unless it’s a proper name…this goes for questions also. ‘”Do you have any idea?” She asked.’ is wrong! However, ‘Do you have any idea?” Bob asked.’ is okay because “Bob” is a proper name.
  4. If at all possible, avoid adverbs to set the mood for the speech. Your dialogue and actions should be enough to convey the meaning behind the speech without the adverbs. Once I blog about Show Versus Tell, I’ll link  it here.
  5. Don’t split a sentence with a dialogue tag. “I cannot believe,” she said, “that Bob said that.” Not only is this wrong, but it’s as annoying as hell.

Action Tags

These serves the same function as a dialogue tag, but requires an action (sorry…I hate using the same word in the definition for trying to give meaning, but my mind threw a blank.)

Examples:

  • he laughed
  • she played
  • he sneered
  • Bob grimaced
  • Jill sat

Action tags and punctuation

A lot of writers make mistakes in this area. Just a few examples of proper Action tag usage.

  • Jill twirled around the room, a look pure bliss on her face. “I love french toast.”
  • “I love french toast.” Jill twirled around the room, a look of pure bliss on her face.
  • The corner of Gary’s lip pulled back in a sneer. “If you don’t get that thing out of my face…”
  • “If you don’t get that thing out of my face…” The corner of Gary’s lip pulled back in a sneer.

And the rules

  1. Unlike the dialogue tag where a comma is the separator, a period is a separator between the action and dialogue here.
  2. Do not try to turn an action tag into a dialogue tag. For example, ‘Jack sneered, “I hate this.”‘ is wrong! Sneered is not a dialogue tag, it’s an action or expression. Don’t confuse the two. The proper way to write a sneer and dialogue is ‘Jack sneered. “I hate this.”‘

That sums up the differences between dialogue tags and action tags. So when to use them? Let’s spell them out in rules.

  1. A dialogue and/or action tag is NOT need for every piece of dialogue. If it’s obvious who’s speaking and the character is doing nothing, then skip the tags altogether.
  2. Do not bog down the writing with excessive dialogue/action tags. Even if the character is diddling about, too many tags slows down the reader.
  3. Try not to put long passages of action, back story, and descriptions in the middle of a conversation; again, it bogs down the story. Speech should flow naturally. Extra words between dialogue are like pauses in the middle of a conversation. So keep that in mind.
  4. Generally, an action tag AND a dialogue tag are not needed for one piece of speech. For example, ‘”Hey!” she said, snatching her notebook back from Bob.’ Instead, try ‘”Hey!” She snatched her notebook back from Bob.’ Notice the first is a dialogue tag with a comma, the second example is an action tag, capital “She.”
  5. Be sure the actions/dialogue tags are used in the proper places (beginning or ending of the sentence.) ‘He laughed. “Stop that.”‘ means something different from ‘”Stop that.” He laughed.’ The first means he laughed then spoke, the second means, he spoke then laughed. Also, keep in mind the point of view (POV). The main character isn’t going to know someone said something until after it’s already said. So, ‘Bob said, “Stop that.”‘ is wrong! if you’re not in Bob’s POV.
  6. If possible, avoid tags in the middle of sentences since they are distracting and indicate a pause in speech.

These guidelines are not all-inclusive. And of course I make mistakes, but don’t tell my husband. Break the guidelines at your own risk. 🙂

If you happen to know a few more to add to the list, feel free to leave a comment.