Disclaimer: This is a recurring and random series of posts. I'm currently enrolled in a basic writing/editing class and felt that my notes might be helpful to others. Please note, I am not an editor. I'm just an author trying to learn more about the craft to improve my own work, while sharing the things I learn along the way. Enjoy.
There are three basic dialogue tags: The “said” tag, the “action” tag, and the “non” tag.
The “said” tag is the most common tag and it works with any type of dialogue that tells you the character said something or how they said it.
“I can’t go out tomorrow, I’ve got to study,” she said.
With a said tag, the tag is considered part of the sentence. Notice how the, “she said” is in lower case?
It’s just an extension of what has been said, separated with a comma.
There are some cases where the tag and it’s punctuation gets confused. For instance, when a character says something with added emphasis.
“I told you not to call me anymore,” she yelled.
She yelled is considered a “said tag” because it tells you how the character said the dialogue. It is treated exactly the same way as a tag using the word, said.
“Get the hell out of my life!” she screamed.
In this instance, there is the addition of the exclamation point to show emphasis on the words.
Even though there is an exclamation point the tag is still lowercase. The exclamation point is used to show the emphasis on what is said but the tag remains the same.
Some things are not a said tag… Laughed, sighed, smiled, frowned, etc.. Ask yourself if you can laugh the words. Can you frown words? Can you sigh words? Those would be actions not ways of saying something.
Which brings us to the “action” tag.
This tag shows what the character is doing while they are speaking.
“I’ve got three meetings to prepare for, come back later.” Sally glanced down to her notes.
With “action” tags, the action is considered a separate sentence. A period is used to separate the dialogue and the action is capitalized as usual.
Pretty basic. Just remember they are two separate sentences and you’re all good.
And finally the “non” tag. This is the easiest one because you don’t have to do anything. A “non” tag is just that, nothing. If the characters are having back and forth speech, there is no need to tag each line. The speaker of the dialogue is implied.
“I’m busy. Go away,” sally said.
“But we really need to talk,” George replied.
“We can talk later.”
“No. If we don’t talk now, we never will.”
“Then we won’t talk. I’m done with this relationship anyway.”
You see how the dialogue flows and after each character is introduced, and you can easily follow the flow without specifying each speaker each time? That’s the beauty of a “non” tag.
Now that you know what types of dialogue are out there, when do you use them?
Sometimes a “said” tag is all that is needed, but if that’s all you use it becomes a battle of he said, she said. The tags become intrusive. If there are actions with each dialogue it can bog down the flow of your writing. If you go with only “non” tags, then there is no visual representation of how the characters are reacting to the words.
Your goal is to come up with a careful balance of all three. Mix it up. If a character says something that would make a character react, show the reaction with the next dialogue tag. If you’ve shown us a lot of action, move to “non” tags for a little then work back into said tags. Play around with it so that the words flow with the action in a non-intrusive manner.
Stay tuned, later this week I'll be getting into the nitty gritty of "Creative Dialogue Tagging."