On Authoring: Action, Dialogue Tags, & Proper Structure

Dialogue is a key element of storytelling. Meaningful dialogue moves a story along, and should place your audience smack in the middle of an integral exchange between your characters. Dialogue can also help set the tone of your story or a moment in time between characters. Tags can also give insight into a character's personality. 

Is your character surly? He might growl out his words. Is your character annoyed? She might snap or bark out her words.

Depending on how you use tags, you can convey emotion or movement. Your tags can be exciting or dull. They can beat your reader over the head, or blend seamlessly into your story. But, no matter how you slice it, tags are a vital tool in storytelling.

What Is a Tag?

Tags are a phrases that come before or after dialogue. A tag can also break up dialogue by coming between pieces of speech.

  • "Here is a tag after a sentence," she said.

  • She looked over the crowd. "Here is a tag before a sentence."

  • "Here is a tag," she explained, "that breaks up a sentence."

Tag Structure

All too often, I see dialogue structured erroneously. Punctuation is placed inside of the quotation marks, without exception. 

After Speech

  • "I had a little lamb," Mary said.

  • "I had a little lamb," said Mary.

  • "Do you have a little lamb, too?" asked Mary.

Before Speech

  • Mary said, "I had a little lamb."

Between Speech

  • "I had a little lamb," said Mary, "with fleece as white as snow."

  • "I had a little lamb," Mary said. "It's fleece was white as snow."

Please note where capitalization and lowercase are used in each of the above examples.

Generic vs Descriptive Dialogue Tags

Personally, I dislike said, but understand there is a need for the generic tag. Readers often gloss over it, which, in some cases, helps maintain a quick pace. I would rather give a reader a better understanding of how a character speaks their dialogue using more descriptive terms such as whispered, shouted, announced, explained, countered, etc. And as a personal rule, I avoid using asked when a character asks a question. The question mark already convey the nature of the dialogue, so I try to find a fitting action tag to go along with the question - or avoid using a tag at all.

  • "I often speak my character's dialogue aloud to see if it sounds realistic," she said.

  • "I often speak my character's dialogue aloud to see if it sounds realistic," she explained.

  • Action Tag: "I often speak my character's dialogue aloud to see if it sounds realistic." She studied the eager faces of her audience, hoping she was giving them sage advice.

Question

  • "Have we met before?"

  • "Yes, we have," he confirmed.

or

  • "Have we met before?" She thought he looked familiar.

  • "Yes, we have," he confirmed.

Or

  • "Have we met before?" She thought he looked familiar.

  • "Yes, we have."

It's up to you to judge which best fits your voice, the character, the moment, and if a generic or descriptive tag will befit (or hinder) your story's pace.

Adverbs

Over the years, I've encountered varied opinions on adverb use. Some authors swear by them. Other authors avoid them at all costs. I'm of the mind that there's a happy medium. But, when it comes to tags, I find I can often - if not always - replace an adverb with a more meaningful descriptive. 

  • "I hate adverbs," she said proudly.

  • "I hate adverbs," she proclaimed.

  • Action Tag: "I hate adverbs." She slammed her fist in the desk.

Laughed, Smiled, Giggled, Etc.

Laughed, smiled, giggled... These are descriptives that require period use. Never a comma. Why? Because they're an action tag, not a dialogue tag.

  • Wrong: "I used simple sentences for examples," she laughed.

  • Correct: "I used silly sentences for examples." She laughed.

Now that you have a better understanding of tags, I'll discuss meaningful dialogue in my next On Authoring post.

Happy writing!

Renee RoccoComment