We all know dialogue is extremely important in fiction, and writing it correctly can make or break a piece of writing (see Self-Editing Tip #5). Once we have the mechanics of dialogue punctuation and paragraphing down, the next step is to review dialogue tags and action tags.
A tag, in fiction, is any piece of narrative that directly corresponds to a piece of dialogue—before, during, or after the sentence of dialogue. This also means that the tag is part of the same sentence as the dialogue.
Example: “I need coffee,” she said.
The tag here is she said, which is the dialogue tag for the entire sentence.
Example: “I need coffee,” she said, running a hand through her hair.
We have the same dialogue tag (she said), followed by an action tag (running a hand through her hair).
What’s really important to remember, which I covered a bit in Tip #5 about dialogue punctuation, is the difference between a dialogue tag and an action tag, and how to appropriately use them. For 99% of dialogue, you can add a dialogue tag only, but not an action tag only (kind of like a rectangle is a square, but not the other way around…). Every action tag needs to be accompanied by a dialogue tag, except for sentences written in the following style:
Example: “Do you know—” she slammed the door “—how late you are?”
This kind of sentence is written to show a specific action occurring in the middle of a character’s sentence (the character even paused to “slam the door”) as opposed to writing, “Do you know how late you are?” She slammed the door in the middle of the sentence. This type of dialogue (with only an action tag) is most effective when used sparingly to show particular emphasis, not for every sentence of dialogue.
Now that we have that differentiation out of the way, what I really want to talk about is how to know when a dialogue tag (and therefore an action tag, if you so choose) is really necessary in your work. There are a few schools of thought on this: Always use dialogue tags; Never use dialogue tags; Use them but never the word said; Always use said in place of “frilly” tags like scoffed or snarled. I’m definitely not here to advocate for one “rule” or the other. As I say time and again, I believe 90% of fiction is the author’s own personal, stylistic choice. My job is to help you look at your work from a different angle, tighten your writing, and eliminate unnecessary prose to help things flow.
There are two types of sentences where a dialogue tag, action tag, or even prose after the dialogue are completely unnecessary, and when you know what to look for, they become quite obvious.
Example: “What in the world…” he said, his voice trailing off.
Example: “I told you not to—” he started, but she interrupted him.
What’s so wrong about these sentences? Nothing, really. But they can be cleaner, simply because the action tags (his voice trailing off and but she interrupted him) are superfluous. We already know these things are happening simply because of the punctuation in use. An ellipsis in the first example (…) is used to show a pause in dialogue, or a “voice trailing off”. An em-dash in the second example (—) is used to show an abrupt halt in dialogue, or “an interruption”. If we already know who the speaker is, we can delete the entire tag (action and dialogue) from each sentence, and the reader will know what’s happening. If it’s not immediately clear in the paragraph who the speaker is, the dialogue tags can be kept, but the action tags most definitely can still be removed.
That brings me to my next point, which is how to know when a dialogue tag is even necessary in the first place when two or more characters are speaking. I see a lot of dialogue tags in conversations between two characters, sentence after sentence, and it can drive me a little crazy sometimes. The biggest indicator of another character speaking is the move to a new paragraph. Then we have the dialogue tags, but they are not always necessary.
Example: Caroline rolled her eyes. “Mom, I’m fine,” she said, slinging on her backpack.
“It’s my job to worry about you,” her mother said. She frowned, looking Caroline up and down, and added, “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Bye, Mom,” Caroline said and hurried through the front door.
Technically, there is nothing wrong with this example. The dialogue is punctuated correctly, with a new paragraph for each speaker. We know who’s saying what. The commas are all in the right place, and there’s a variety of sentence structures here. But every line of dialogue has a dialogue tag, and that can quickly become repetitive if we’re reading a long conversation. It’s not necessary to remove every single dialogue tag in a conversation, but I recommend not having more than two in a row for variety’s sake. In the following example, I’ve removed every dialogue tag and changed the action tags (which can’t exist without dialogue tags) to simple sentences of action all on their own.
Example: Caroline rolled her eyes and slung on her backpack. “Mom, I’m fine.”
“It’s my job to worry about you.” Her mother frowned and looked her up and down. “Is that what you’re wearing?”
“Bye, Mom.” Caroline hurried through the front door.
Of course, this is up to you, whether you want to write a conversation with no dialogue tags at all, or whether you want to spice it up and add one every now and then. But in a conversation between only two people, clarity can be maintained without using a single tag at all. Take a look at Self-Editing Tip #2 for my advice on two-character conversations made of only dialogue.
What about dialogue with more than two characters? Are dialogue tags required for those? Not necessarily. You can do the same thing as the above example with three or more characters as well, as long as you make it clear who’s saying what.
Example: I found myself more worried than usual, and I had to say something. “Do you think that’s a good—”
“Who cares?” Emily stripped down to her swimsuit.
Martin looked at me with wide eyes and shrugged. “Like we’ve ever been able to stop her?”
Zero dialogue tags! And I’ve even written an interruption from the first line of dialogue (using an em-dash), followed immediately by Emily’s dialogue.
There is one type of written conversation in which I highly recommend using dialogue tags, and this is a strong preference of mine. I see this in scenes where three or more characters are present.
Example: Karen’s three sons sat on the dock, their legs dangling into the rising tide. Tyler looked out over the water, staring at the reflected sunset. “Do you think we’re ever coming back?”
“I don’t know.” Matt threw a rock into the river. “I can’t believe this is happening.”
“Yeah…” Tyler sighed.
Matt sniffed and tossed another rock. “She said we didn’t have any other choice.”
“I don’t care what Mom said. This is where we grew up. This is what we know. You do what you want, but I’m gonna make sure we keep this place,” Kevin said.
Wait, Kevin? I thought Tyler had that last paragraph.
In the above example, even though it starts out with Karen’s three sons, Kevin isn’t actually introduced until the end of his dialogue, which is after four sentences. Every time I read something like this, I get thrown off with the introduction of the third speaker. When a different speaker isn’t introduced right away, it’s easier to assume that the speaker is one we’ve already seen before in the conversation. The easy way to fix this is to rewrite Kevin’s dialogue and introduce him immediately.
Example: “I don’t care what Mom said,” Kevin added. “This is where we grew up. This is what we know. You do what you want, but I’m gonna make sure we keep this place.”
This way, we know exactly who’s speaking right away, and the reader doesn’t get thrown for a loop when their initial impression of the speaker is completely changed.
As I’ve said before, using dialogue and action tags can be a stylistic choice, and there are ways to work around using them, not using them, and replacing them. The key thing, as with all good writing techniques, is to find your own balance of variety and clarity when writing good dialogue.