The Craft of Writing: Dialogue, Dialogue Tags, and Action Tags

Dialogue is used for a variety of purposes.

  1. To convey information
  2. To help define character
  3. To break up the monotony of long passages of narrative and provide more white space on the page

Dialogue tags are the narrative that tells the reader who is speaking.

  1. “Good morning, students,” the teacher said.
  2. “Help!” she screamed, hoping someone would hear her.
  3. He asked, “Who did this?”

Action tags tell the reader who’s speaking along with some action or thoughts.

  1. “Good morning, students.” The teacher rose from behind her desk and smiled at the twenty-four girls and boys in front of her. This was going to be anything but a good morning if she had her way.

Although I’ve said there are no rules in writing, there are punctuation rules that are generally followed. And there are styles that publishers follow that may be different from one publisher or one country to another.

General rules:

  1. Double quotes are used to indicate the spoken word. (Italics for internal thoughts.) If you use the curved quote marks, make sure the opening quote marks look like backward commas and the closing quote marks look like two commas that have floated up from the bottom line. If you use the straight quote marks you won’t have this problem, but not all publishers like the straight quote mark.
  2. If you have a quote within a line of dialogue, the single quote mark is used. Again, make sure the curved ones are correctly placed. (Be especially careful when using the em dash.)
  3. The period and the comma fall within the quotation marks. The colon and semicolon fall outside the quotation marks. The dash, question mark, and exclamation point fall within the quote marks when they refer to the quoted matter only; they fall outside when they refer to the whole sentence.
  4. Start a new paragraph any time you change speakers.
  5. There are over 50 verbs to indicate the dialogue was spoken, but “he said” and “she asked” are the best because they become invisible to the reader. As soon as you start using other verbs (alleged, posed, verbalized, demanded, stipulated, etc.) the reader begins concentrating on those words.
  6. If the speaker is cut off, use an em dash.
    “I’m sorry, I—”
    A fist in his face ended his apology.
  7. If the speaker’s words trail off, use an ellipse.
    “I’m sorry, I . . .” He couldn’t go on without crying.
  8. Remember, dialogue is spoken. Don’t use: “You’re cute,” she smiled. You can’t smile words. This would need to be: “You’re cute.” She smiled. When you go to use a verb as a tag, ask yourself if you would be able to speak while doing this.
  9. If each character has a distinctive way of speaking, you may not need to use dialogue tags to identify each speaker; however, even so it’s good to indicate the speaker every so often to remind the reader.
  10. If you have just two speakers, once they’ve been identified, you probably don’t need to identify them with each line of dialogue. But after several lines of give and take dialogue, do remind the reader with a he said/she asked.
  11. If you have more than two people talking, you will need to identify each speaker with each bit of dialogue unless the speakers have such distinct voices their identity is clear. And rather than using he said/she said with each speaker, vary the tags by using action tags whenever possible.
  12. Dialogue does not need to follow rules of grammar. Feel free to use short sentences and sentence fragments. Use words that would be natural for the character.
  13. Real dialogue is often boring. A writer needs to give the “flavor” of real dialogue.
  14. Dialogue should move the story forward: give information or help develop the character. If it’s not doing that, eliminate or condense.
  15. Use narrative tags to condense a conversation so you avoid the mundane. For example:
    Greetings were given, handshakes and hugs, the weather discussed along with everyone’s health. Finally the three got down to business. “Mary, you were called here because I have an important assignment for you.”

Don’t forget, one of the best ways to learn how to write dialogue is to read. Pick books you admire, books you couldn’t put down, and see how the author handles dialogue. And when you’re in the store, restaurant, shop, or beauty parlor, listen to how people talk. How men talk versus women, the words they use, the length of their sentences. Then go forth and verbalize.

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15 Responses to The Craft of Writing: Dialogue, Dialogue Tags, and Action Tags

  1. Diana Stout says:

    Maris, this has got to be one of the best explanation and examples that I’ve seen in a long time. Well done!

  2. Diane Burton says:

    Your craft of writing series has been very helpful. Lots of good stuff for the new writer and reminders for the rest of us.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thanks, Diane. I belong to a critique group where a lot of questions regarding these topics have come up, and I realized other writers might also have questions.

  3. Good job explaining all this. I’m reading a book right now that’s an award winner, but I find the writer messed up in several areas as far as writing dialogue and I don’t think it’s because he doesn’t have skill. Agreed–dialogue certainly livens up a story! My favorite authors for doing so are Richard Russo and Larry McMurtry. (go figure)

    • Maris Soule says:

      Paula, I’m curious what you mean by “messed up.” I’m reading one author now who doesn’t write dialogue tags the way I’m used to seeing, and it sometimes stops me as I’m reading, yet his way isn’t wrong and I’m sure if I read several of his books I’d get used to this style.

      • I guess I should have been more specific. The author included dialogue from more than one person in a paragraph and it was hard to follow who was speaking. I would have to guess sometimes. I too have read books with no dialogue tags and, like you, I got used to it before I was too far into the book. But I just found this other author’s technique jarring.

  4. This is an excellent explanation of how dialogue tags should be used–especially helpful for beginning writers.

    • Maris Soule says:

      Thank you, Jacqueline. I’m always surprised by how many people don’t know or have forgotten the basics for writing dialogue. I hope the blog does help.

  5. Melissa Keir says:

    Wonderful lesson. I wish all the students could grasp this concept as easily.

    • Maris Soule says:

      I think it’s a case of learning by doing, Melissa. I remember one romance writer who wrote her entire book never using a he said/she said. All she used were action tags to identify the speaker as well as “tells” in each speaker’s way of talking. She was successful, but it seemed like a lot of work, and I don’t think she ever did it again.

  6. Lucy Kubash says:

    Really enjoying your craft of writing series, as we all can benefit from a refresher course every now and then. I know I can. I once read a book called Plainsong, in which the author broke every punctuation rule as well as capitalization. I guess maybe it was a literary thing? But story wise, it actually was one of the best books I’ve ever read.

    • Maris Soule says:

      And as we know, Lucy, it’s the story we buy the books for, not how well the writer did following grammar/punctuation rules. The problem is, nowadays most agents and editors are so rushed, they don’t get past the fact that the manuscript doesn’t follow the standards.

  7. HiDee Ekstrom says:

    Thanks for the tips, Maris. Good ones to remember!