Dialogue tags: attribution tags and action tags (tip 33) 1

Modern novels contain more dialogue than ever before, so it’s a problem for many aspiring authors that they make mistakes when writing dialogue tags. Here, D.D. Johnston shares everything you need to know.


Video transcript follows below:

When you’re writing dialogue, it’s usually necessary to tell the reader who’s speaking. And there are two ways that you can do this. Speaker attribution tags attribute the dialogue to a specific person by using a form of the word said: ‘What’s in the case?’ says Ringo.

Action tags show action with the dialogue; the assumption is that the person performing the action is also doing the speaking: Ringo points his gun. ‘What’s in the case?’

Here are three rules for using action tags and attribution tags.

[1] They are punctuated differently. Attribution tags are usually part of the same sentence as the dialogue that they attribute. ‘Says Ringo’ is not grammatically complete, so you don’t start a new sentence after ‘What’s in the case?’ So the word ‘says’ isn’t capitalised, even though it comes after a question mark.

In contrast, action tags usually form sentences separate to the dialogue that follows. ‘Ringo points his gun’ is a complete sentence, so it’s ended with a period. We then start a new sentence for ‘What’s in the case?’ You can’t replace the period without a comma because a comma can’t connect two independent clauses.

[2] When writing attribution tags use he said or she said. Don’t write he asserted or she opined; don’t write he queried or she wheedled; don’t write he responded or she retorted; just write he said or she said, Lucy said or Dave said. Occasionally you can get away with she asked, Jim whispered, or he shouted, but 90% of the time you’re best just to write ‘said.’

[3] Don’t use adverbs or otherwise over-explain your dialogue. Don’t write she said angrily or he said curtly or Lucy said brusquely or Dave said tetchily. If you need to explain how your characters say things, it’s probably because your dialogue isn’t good enough. If you write good dialogue then it should convey the intended emotion without you telling us to imagine the way it’s said. Write dialogue that is brusque, or angry, or curt, or tetchy.

Here’s an example: [film clip]
How might we present this dialogue in prose?
Something like this, for example:
[…]
But there are several errors here.

The first thing to note is that since it’s Ringo who says ‘“What’s in the case?”’, that line of dialogue needs to be moved to the same line as Ringo’s action tag.

Here’s the next thing we need to correct. The first problem is with the punctuation. Because it’s an attribution tag, it shouldn’t form a new sentence – ‘Says Jules wryly’ isn’t grammatically complete. The other problem is the adverb ‘wryly’. The dialogue is wry, so let’s not insult the reader by explaining that.
So let’s change it to a simple ‘says Jules.’

Here’s another change we can make. I would prefer ‘Ringo says’ to ‘Ringo demands’, but because at this point there are only two characters interacting, and because the speaker on the line above was identified as Jules, we can delete this tag altogether and it will still be clear who is speaking.
And this is over-explaining. Obviously there’s tension in the room – they’re in a stand-off and one of them is pointing a gun! Cut!

And this is another over-elaborate dialogue tag. The simple ‘says Yolanda’ is far preferable.
Here there are two problems – it’s an attribution tag, so it shouldn’t be a new sentence, and the dialogue is impetuous, and that’s a judgement our readers are capable of making for themselves.

Similarly, instead of writing ‘remarks Jules coolly’, let’s leave the judgement to the readers – our job is to provide them with the facts – and let’s use the invisible ‘said’ instead of the obtrusive ‘remarks’.

Are we happy? It certainly appears so.

Thanks for watching, and good luck with your writing.

The thumbnail for this video uses a photograph by Pedro Ribeiro Simões. It’s covered by a Creative Commons license, and you can find more of his work here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/pedrosimoes7/

One comment

  1. Pingback: Dialogue tags editing exercise to accompany writing tip 33 « Online writing tips .com

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