Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Dialog tags and punctuation

by Lisa Lickel
Dialogue Clipart

When I was a baby writer back in the early 2000s two fads were passing through my tiny little writing world. They both were flash in the nights and are now gone. The first was to disavow dialog tags altogether, like some Mission Impossible agents whose case had gone south. The first novel I contracted for was written proudly without tags. The editor put them all back in. The second fad, which lasted for about five minutes, was to try to be creative with he said, she said--"Don't be boring," non-reading pundits advised. Meanwhile, real writing experts (those who actually made a living at it) and real readers, after complaining they never knew who was talking in the above case, said about the creative tags, "Are you kidding? I never pay attention to 'said' anyway. It's, like, the invisible word. Just use it and don't get lame trying to make me figure out which hep cat hissed this or cliche bad guy growled that. Just say it, man!"

I bring this topic back up today because of the many times I've witnessed these errors in materials I have been reviewing and editing lately. I'm not signalling anyone out, and sometimes it's just an honest mistake. I mean, they had to put the comma and period right next to each other on the QWERTY keyboard, right?
Dialogue cliparts

So now, when you read fiction, mindfully notice for a while who sez what how. Good writers use a carefully crafted blend of tags and action beats (more later) and stay out of their own story.

Dialog--what exactly is it? Dia is Greek for move it along, folks and thought, according to etymology online  to be the latin root origin of two. Logos, of course, is Greek for word, from which get our idea of language; thus two speakers. Monologue, of course is...yep, mono for one--one person blabbing to himself or herself, internally or out loud. Tag is another way of saying "attribution." The speech is attributed to Paul, or Ringo, or George, or whomever is talking in your story. "I said it," Ringo shouted.


In American English, we use double quotation marks to offset speech. Unless you're Charles Frazier writing Pulitzer-worthy novels made into major motion pictures which win major awards, then you use dashes. If you want to know the rules of other types of English that is not American, British author Lynn Truss has a fantastic book.

"Thank you for having me on your show," I told the radio host.
"I'm just thrilled to be nominated," said the jaded diva.
Lucy said, "Just ketchup."

In American English, we ALWAYS put certain punctuation marks INSIDE the quotation marks
and, when ending the sentence and part of the speaker's verbiage,

"Gee whiz, Mr. Ed, why'd you have to say that?" Timmy asked.
Reginald's face turned crimson. "You are out of your mind!"

Gee whiz, Mr. Ed. Didn't you hear Timmy say, "I'll be right back"?

In American English we use single quotation marks INSIDE of double quotation marks when a speaker is quoting someone else:

"No!" Reginald huffed. "Mark clearly said 'Ahhh!' when he was going over the side."

We use commas to INTRODUCE speech and periods to end the speech.

Babs said, "Ooh! Wait for me."
Mark asked Reginald, "Can you see it? Bobbing on that wave? It's just over...Ahhh!"

We use periods to end sentences or action beats--those little phrases that indicate who is going to speak when we don't tag the speech.

Mr. Ed nodded his head, sending his mane flying. "I did too hear Timmy say he'd be right back."
Babs pouted. "I wanted to go save Mark."


Tags are the words that describe how one speaks. Said and Asked are the two most common, invisible ways to attribute speech to a character. Since they are so common, readers mostly skip over them, just making sure they are following the conversation. Along with tags, dialog--speech among people--should also be distinguishable by mannerism, word choice, and especially body language. Tags, interspersed with action beats (usually some type of body language or activity that identifies the speaker) make conversation move the story along.

Ways people speak set the tone and pace of the conversation. Out of breath people speak one way; nervous people have particular mannerisms and ways of speaker, non-native-English speakers have little idiosyncrasies. People who have been crying, or are happy have ways of speaking. People with secrets speak a certain way. You get my drift? People can sniff, but they can't sniff-talk, giggle-talk, wave-their-hand-talk, smack-your-shoulder-talk, cough-talk. "Cried" is one of those dual-purpose words that can mean the act of weeping, or a way of calling out loud. Be careful to use that tag when the action won't be confused with the manner of speech. They may talk after or before they perform those actions, but the action is NOT an attribute set off with a COMMA--the action is a SENTENCE set off with a PERIOD. 

"Come into my parlor," whispered the spinster to her gentleman caller.
The caller wiped his shoes and doffed his hat. "Thank you, ma'am."
She indicated the sofa. "Sit here," she said and waved her hand. She didn't dare meet his eye. "I'll sit there." She gathered her skirt and perched on the end of her mother's brocade chair.
The caller cleared his throat. "Seems like..." He sniffed. "Excuse me," he said. He wiggled his mustache. "Would you have a handkerchief to spare," he asked.
"What did you say?"
The caller repeated his request. "My nose is twitching," he explained.
"Shore do!" the spinster shouted back and sprang to her feet.

What are some different times you use an odd tag? What are your favorites?

Resources: has a good lesson sheet on some examples to use--SPARINGLY--in place of said. I question a few of them because--really--who "giggle" speaks? and can you understand it?

The SuperTeacherWorksheet site has a very basic info page and exercise. Puh-lese, don't knock it until you do it right in your sleep. Everybody needs a little refresher, and if you're smarter than a fifth grader, good on 'ya, but just try it, K?

The Write at Home blog by Brian Wasko has a good slightly older post on the subject.

And of course the venerable Writers Digest has a venerable article on the subject of what kinds of tags to use when--though of course they're wrong about there being no rules. Of course there are rules, silly. Even Charles Frazier played by the rules when he used no quotation marks in Cold Mountain and other works. And he's a recovering literature professor.

ClipArt is from and is free to use and share for non-purposes.

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