Last week, in my post about How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice on Jane Friedman’s blog, I mentioned that the details about your character are the stuff that will make your beats. I’m assuming here that, if you’re a writer, you have heard about dialogue tags and beats, right?
I know you have, but it’s not unlikely you have some questions about them. So I’ll write two posts explaining a little more about each of these necessary writing tools and how to use them.
First, I’ll talk about dialogue tags. Tags are everything that actually indicate a person is speaking. Said, yelled, whispered… Those are all dialogue tags. We use them to identify the speaker in the easiest way possible.
You should always use a comma between quote and dialogue tag. “‘I love you,’ he said.” Or, if you’re going for the tag before quote approach (something you should only do when absolutely necessary): “He said, ‘I love you.'” If it’s a question, you should use the question mark and lose the comma, but you still keep your tag in lower case. “‘Are you okay?’ he asked.” Oh, and the punctuation should always be inside the quote marks!
2) Keep it simple
Avoid fancy tags. Objected, interjected, commented… Those are all more complicated versions of “said.” Of course you can use “asked.” You can even get away with things that indicate tone (whispered, yelled, etc.), as long as you use them with caution. Other than that, stick to “said.” I know it might sound repetitive, but it’s something readers ignore. Any other tag will give your reader pause. “Said” helps with flow.
3) Avoid anything that isn’t a way of saying things
Dialogue tags, as I said above, are the words that indicate a person is speaking. However, people often make the mistake of using general actions as dialogue tags. I see sentences like, “‘This is such a coincidence,’ she laughed.” That’s not a dialogue tag. You can’t laugh a sentence. If she said something and laughed, that’s a beat (we’ll talk more abou that in the next post).
4) Try to avoid tag before quote
That might be just a pet peeve of mine. But the truth is, tags before quotes sound a lot less natural than tags after quotes. Most of the time, tags before quotes come accompanying beats. Something like, “He turned around and then said, ‘I love you.'” But when you have a beat, you don’t need a tag. It’s easier to just eliminate the tag. If you have a dialogue tag before a quote, make sure it’s not a beat tag along and check to see if moving things around a bit wouldn’t give you a better flow. Only use tag before quote when there’s really no other way.
5) Avoid the overuse of tags
“What? But you just said readers ignore ‘he said/she said’, you crazy woman!” I know, Iknow. But if you have a long dialogue filled with “he said/she said,” not only does it get repetitive, you miss an opportunity to show. Instead of having a clear scene, you have talking heads. That’s why you need balance. Use simple tags to keep it flowing, and use beats to show. How? That’s a topic for the next post.
Do you have any other questions about dialogue tags?