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.