How to use dialogue tags

Dialogue tags, action beats and punctuation – a quick guide

Among the most debated topics among the writing community – aside from the Oxford comma, of course – is the humble dialogue tag. I’m not going to say which method I prefer, because I like a mixture. But I am going to show you how to punctuate them properly – I’m a sub-editor by trade, after all.

To that end, here’s a section of dialogue in classic script format with which we can play:

Gerald
Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this.

Milly
Like what? I don’t even know what we’re arguing about.

Gerald
We’re arguing about dialogue tags. Don’t you think we should get to the bottom of it?

Milly
For heaven’s sake, Gerald, do give it a rest. It’s all so terribly tiresome.

Gerald
But it matters!

Adapting this to prose is most commonly used with the “quotation mark”. Some prefer a single ‘quote mark’, but not me; I believe it’s much more elegant “to reserve the ‘single quote mark’ for quotes within quotes”.

(Of course, Cormac McCarthy, for one, doesn’t bother with such quibbles, so feel free to disregard every rule of punctuation if you’re a story-writing genius.)

So, when we strip out the script formatting, how do we help the reader follow who is saying what and to whom?

Using said

The most common dialogue tag is “said”, though “asked” is often ranked among it for speech that forms a question. Note, the verb – say or ask – is in lower case and is preceded by a comma inside the quotation, at the end of the quote.

“Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this,” said Gerald.

“Like what? I don’t even know what we’re arguing about,” said Milly.

Using “said” like this is fine – the word is so common it practically disappears for the reader and once a conversation between two people is up and running, they can be dropped altogether, especially if their voices are distinct. (This becomes more difficult when more than two characters are present, of course.)

However, it can be good practice to move those dialogue identifiers as close to the beginning of the speech as possible. In technical writing, in order to be clear from the outset, we might write:

Said Gerald: “Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this.”

But this is far too inelegant for fiction, so we try to insert the tag during the first natural pause.

“Listen,” said Gerald, “we’re not going to get anywhere like this.”

Note the comma again precedes the verb “said”, still inside the quotation marks. Additionally, another comes in before the quote restarts. That’s because the sentence is ongoing. Also, since the quote picks up again mid-sentence, it returns in lower case. We can also do this with Milly’s speech, but with “asked”:

“Like what?” asked Milly. “I don’t even know what we’re arguing about.”

There are a few things to remember, here. “Like what?” is a complete sentence, but the dialogue tag remains lower case because it uses the complete sentence as the beginning of its own – so, “asked Milly” begins in lower case. Similarly, because the following quote is also its own sentence, we close off the dialogue tag with a full stop.

The reader will always assume all words spoken in a single paragraph are from the same character, so while “I don’t even know what we’re arguing about” doesn’t receive its own identifier, its proximity to the previous tag is enough for us to know who’s talking.

However, cutting a sentence to add a tag when there isn’t a natural pause is an absolute no-no. What do I mean by natural pause? Say the sentence out loud, and they’ll become apparent. So, after “Listen” would be acceptable, but these would jar horribly:

“Listen, we’re not going,” said Gerald, “to get anywhere like this.”

“Listen, we’re not going to get,” said Gerald, “anywhere like this.”

This is called “BAD”.

Using stronger verbs

There are many writers who believe a stronger verb than “said” is preferable, as it can convey in what way the words are uttered, giving the reader more sense of drama. The same line of dialogue can be fundamentally changed by its delivery alone. Compare:

“We’re arguing about dialogue tags,” Gerald whispered.

“We’re arguing about dialogue tags,” Gerald whined.

In the first example, Gerald might be a self-conscious writer, talking at a writer’s convention and not wanting to be overheard. In the second, Gerald’s more like a schoolboy, whose mother won’t help him with his punctuation homework.

All well and good – in moderation. But the punctuation remains the same regardless of the fancy verb you use.

However, bad habits include overly obvious and awkward verbs, like “groused”, “ruminated”, “questioned”, or the Conan Doyle special, “ejaculated”. These rarely add to the atmosphere and instead draw your reader out of the world by reminding them, with obtuse words, that they’re reading a book, rather than absorbing a scene.

Another bad habit is the use of verbs that don’t naturally pertain to the act of speaking. There’s the animal noises that get used: “squeaked”, “roared”, “growled”, or “hissed”, though I don’t find these as odious as many other writers do. (Top tip: probably best not to use “hissed” for a quote with no “s” sounds in it. It’s very hard to hiss “Bubblegum”, for instance.)

There’s also the actions-dressed-as-speech versions, like “guffawed”, “huffed”, or:

“We’re arguing about dialogue tags,” choked Gerald.

It could be argued “choked” conveys Gerald’s disbelief at having to repeat himself, but you don’t choke words. You might choke ON your words, but that’s the kind of thing I’d place before the quote:

Gerald choked on his words. “We’re arguing about dialogue tags.”

Using adverbs with said

You might think there isn’t a verb out there strong enough to convey precisely how you want your characters to say something. Why not then adopt an adverb to take a verb that’s close, and edge it that little bit closer?

“For heaven’s sake, Gerald,” Milly said forcefully, “do give it a rest.”

But there are two rebuttals to this method. The first is that there is usually a verb that more than adequately describes the action without the need of the adverb at all (in this case, “Milly moaned” might work, or “Milly admonished”).

The second rebuttal is that, if your dialogue is strong enough, the method in which it is delivered is evident in the words themselves, rendering both the strong verb, or the verb-adverb redundant. I’d argue that Milly calling on the pity of the heavens and using his name like a scolding parent are both indications enough of her forceful tone.

Using adverbs with strong verbs

This is where the amateur writer, encouraged by peers of dubious tutelage, can come a cropper. Using a strong verb – say “chastised” – and adding an adverb makes an almighty signpost that says you don’t know what you’re doing.

“For heaven’s sake, Gerald,” Milly chastised discordantly, “do give it a rest.”

Adverbs are almost always unnecessary in these cases and look try-hard. Worse still are the gerund-adverbs – a verb with the gerund –ing formation AND the adverbial –ly tacked on the end, like “questioningly”, “scoldingly”, “disgustingly”. In my view, these are best avoided at all costs, unless you’re writing comedy.

This adverb nonsense can lead the hapless author to sentences as shocking as this cracker from Dale Brown’s Rogue Forces:

“Can we please get on with this?” Stacy Anne Barbeau suddenly blurted perturbedly.

It’s still my favourite. Deliciously awful.

However, adverb adders are in fairly decent company. Take these examples from Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World:

“Nice tame animals, anyhow,” the Controller murmured parenthetically.

“Just to please me,” Bernard bellowingly wheedled.

It was a different time, back in 1932…

Action dialogue tags

The most favoured dialogue indicator, though, is the action tag. Rather than explicitly mention who is talking, beats of movement or expression are interlaced with the speech to denote the speaker. This reveals more detail in the scene, inserts beats of rhythm to make it more fluid and natural, and is excellent at conveying characterisation outside of speech.

Gerald leaned forward. “Listen, we’re not going to get anywhere like this.”

Milly rolled her eyes, incredulous. “Like what?” She rose from the writing desk and meandered to the window. “I don’t even know what we’re arguing about.”

“We’re arguing about dialogue tags.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. “Don’t you think we should get to the bottom of it?”

She huffed, the weight of every grammarian’s entreaty on her shoulders. “For heaven’s sake, Gerald, do give it a rest.” She yawned. “It’s all so terribly tiresome.”

Gerald bolted from his chair and shook her by the shoulders. “But it matters!”

Whatever you may think of this rather silly scene, the action tags make clear what is happening, who is talking and what the characters are feeling, without an adverb in sight and never once specifically saying who is speaking.

In terms of the punctuation, note that none of the dialogue needs to be introduced with a comma, so no:

She yawned, “It’s all so terribly tiresome.”

In our example, she yawns, then says the words, so we have two complete sentences separated by a full stop. With a comma, it sounds peculiar, another one of those actions-dressed-as-speech verbs. We don’t yawn words, but we might attempt to speak through a yawn, however unintelligible it may be.

Mix ‘em up…

Of course, using all of the above (some more sparingly than others) is undoubtedly the best course of action. Moderation in all things, my dears. And variety will bring your words to life.

“Listen,” Gerald said calmly, “we’re not going to get anywhere like this.”

Milly rolled her eyes. “Like what?” she asked, as she rose from the writing desk and meandered to the window. “I don’t even know what we’re arguing about.”

“We’re arguing about dialogue tags,” he blurted. “Don’t you think we should get to the bottom of it?”

She huffed, the weight of every grammarian’s entreaty on her shoulders. “For heaven’s sake, Gerald, do give it a rest.” She stifled a yawn that drowned her words. “It’s all so terribly tiresome.”

Gerald bolted from his chair and shook her by the shoulders. “But it matters!” he shrieked.

I hope this helps. Feel free to ask any questions!

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3 thoughts on “Dialogue tags, action beats and punctuation – a quick guide”

  1. Great post! You certainly made me laugh at times; I love it when people mix humor in rather than simply giving dry examples of what is and isn’t okay.

    I tend to avoid adverbs completely in dialog tags–though I do sometimes over do it with custom tags (rather than using said regularly.) Changing it up definitely is good, but I’ve found that “said” fades into the background better, so in a conversation without many action tags I tend to fall back to that. Action tags, on the other hand, I love to use whenever possible (without overdoing it, of course!)

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Heather! Completely agree with you. Actions are best, but a dose of saids keeps everything easy to follow.

      I’ll use the odd adverb if I want something overtly oxymoronic (“whispered loudly”, for instance, sounds like someone who is whispering but who wants to be overheard nonetheless).

      There’s space for all these methods, apart from the word “perturbedly”, of course, which should be dragged out of the dictionary into the street and shot.

      Like

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