When my husband started writing for publication, I had the unique opportunity to get an up-close-and-personal look at the writing process of another person. One of the things he struggled with was the specific handling of grammar when writing dialogue. I’ve seen several other of my writer friends struggle with this, so I thought I’d break down the basics here.

Tagging Dialogue

“Tagging” dialogue means using language that associates the spoken words of dialogue with the speaker. Tagging is not always necessary. Clarity should trump style, when push comes to shove, but it doesn’t have to be ugly–and it definitely shouldn’t be annoying.

Said is your best friend when it comes to tagging dialogue, because it’s pretty much invisible. Our eyes usually skip right over it, the way they skip over “the” and “and”, and this is the goal. We want the reader to hear the dialogue in their head, without getting tripped up over the framing mechanics.

“Listen, I’ve got to go, but I’ll call you later,” she said.

In a sad, misguided attempt to give their writing flavor, a lot of beginner writers will attempt to ‘spice up’ their dialogue by using various alternatives:

commanded  complained  corrected  countered
cursed dared  demanded  disagreed  exasperated
exploded gibed goaded growled grumbled
harshly hissed hollered howled huffed
insulted interrupted

Don’t do this–at least, don’t do it often. Use alternatives to said once in a while, when it will add positive value to an exchange, not because you realize you’ve used “said” three times in a row and think you should break it up a little–there are other ways to do that in a less obtrusive manner, and without stamping “NEWB” on your forehead in red ink.

How do you know if it’s adding positive value? Like everything else, this is a judgment call, and you’ll get better at it the more you do it. If you’re looking up lists of alternatives (like the above) on Reddit or Tumblr, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Breaking up the Monotony

Despite all the above, if you use said too much, it stops being invisible and starts being annoying.

“Your previous Watcher has stated that you helped hold the upper city until the others fled through the tunnels,” Sazar said.
“Yes,” Gideon said.
“And how did you manage your retreat?” Sazar said.
“One of the men defending with me climbed down to the lower tier and pulled down the scaffolding, collapsing it atop himself and the assaulting force,” Gideon said.
“And died?” Sazar said.
“You know what happened, Watcher,” Gideon said.
“Please answer the question put to you, Oathbound,” Imbrium said.
“No, he didn’t die,” Gideon said. “I went to the lower tier and retrieved him.”
“Alone,” Sazar said.
“Yes,” Gideon said.
“From a part of the city occupied by the enemy.”
“Yes,” Gideon said.

Do you see it? It’s like water torture. Drip. Drip. Drip. Said. Said. Said…
This is a passage from my novel A Sword for Chaos, modified to illustrate my point. And then, how it actually appears in the book:

“Your previous Watcher has stated that you helped hold the upper city until the others fled through the tunnels.”
“Yes.”
“And how did you manage your retreat?”
“One of the men defending with me climbed down to the lower tier and pulled down the scaffolding, collapsing it atop himself and the assaulting force,” Gideon said.
“And died?”
“You know what happened, Watcher.”
“Please answer the question put to you, Oathbound,” Imbrium said mildly.
Gideon bowed his head. “No, he didn’t die. I went to the lower tier and retrieved him.”
“Alone.” Sazar raised a skeptical eyebrow.
“Yes.”
“From a part of the city occupied by the enemy.”
“Yes.”
“And, remarkably, you escaped uninjured.”
Gideon tried to smother a surge of frustration. “Yes.”
Sazar’s dark eyes narrowed on Gideon. “You were not allowed to escape by the enemy, then?”
“No,” Gideon said, willing his face to remain expressionless.

I use the word ‘said’ three times there, but I also don’t use any alternatives. Aside from Imbrium’s interjection in the middle, this conversation is between two individuals. In cases like these, it’s unnecessary to tag every line of dialogue because a line break implies a change in speaker.

I want to say that again.

A line break implies a change in speaker.

It’s still a good idea to put in a reminder of who’s speaking every few lines, just so the reader doesn’t lose their place and have to backtrack to sort out the order, but this is where action tags can come in handy.

An action tag is a action taken by the speaker, which is used as either a prefix or suffix to the dialogue in order to indicate ownership of dialogue. Example:

Gideon bowed his head. “No, he didn’t die. I went to the lower tier and retrieved him.”

Action tags can be useful when you want to make note of the speaker’s body language, or if you have them doing something while speaking, which can add life to a scene and keep it from feeling like two talking heads with speech bubbles, like some tiresome political comic strip.

“I–I don’t–” The girl’s eyes darted to the side. “I didn’t see what happened.”

Dialogue Grammar

This is where it gets sticky for many writers. I know, I know. Grammar is boring, but looking like an idiot is worse, and I’ve got a pretty good trick to help you out.

I love action tags, but they also seem to be what trips up writers grammatically. Dialogue tags are affixed to dialogue by way of a comma. Action tags are usually affixed to dialogue by way of  a period, because they are essentially separate from the speech.

“I know, you’re tired of hearing me say it,” she said.

The action of saying something is connected to the actual words, so we use a comma here. If we interrupt a sentence with a tag (which is completely acceptable) we use a comma, because it is part of the speech.

“I know,” she said, “you’re tired of hearing me say it.”

When we use an action tag, the action is separate, so we use a period instead, regardless of whether the action tag comes before or after the dialogue.

Suzanne flicked the crumpled straw wrapper across the table. “I know what you’re going to say.”

You can combine dialogue and action, as well.

“I know what you’re going to say,” Suzanne said, flicking the crumpled straw wrapper across the table.

or

Suzanne flicked the crumpled straw wrapper across the table. “I know what you’re going to say,” she said.

I prefer not to do the either of the above, though, because the ‘said’ becomes superfluous in the presence of the action. They rhythm of the sentence may appeal more to you, however, so go with your gut. Just don’t do any of the following:

Suzanne flicked the crumpled straw wrapper across the table, “I know what you’re going to say.”

“I know, you’re tired of hearing me say it.” She said.

A trick for being able to tell the difference is to take your tag, slap it onto the front of the dialogue in narrative (if the narrative is in past-tense, you’ll need to switch that as well, since most written-out dialogue is in present tense). Then, see if it works as a single sentence without adding in a conjunction like “and” or “but”.

I said I knew he was tired of hearing me say it.

That’s a complete, grammatically legitimate sentence. Let’s try an action tag:

Suzanne flicked the crumpled straw wrapper across the table, she knew what he was going to say.

This is a comma splice, which is a grammatical error that happens when you take two separate sentences and join them without a conjunction.

If it works as a sentence without a conjunction, use a comma. If it doesn’t, use a period.

Who’s Talking?

Going back to what I said about line breaks implying a change in speaker, try not to place the words of one person and the action of another in one paragraph. This can be very confusing.

“Let’s go get a burger or something.” Jerry patted his pockets, looking for his keys. Sarah watched him fumble around for a moment before pointing at the glint of metal on the carpet. “Oh, right. You threw them at me.”

Who’s speaking there at the end? Is it Jerry? We haven’t had a line break yet. Or is it Sarah, because she was the last name mentioned?

Keep everyone’s action/dialogue on their own lines, even if we have to break things up a bit. When push comes to shove, clarity should trump style.

“Let’s go get a burger or something.” Jerry patted his pockets, looking for his keys.

Sarah watched him fumble around for a moment before pointing at the glint of metal on the carpet.

“Oh right,” he said. “You threw them at me.”

RECAP TIME…

Said is pretty low-key. Using alternatives to spice it up is calling attention to the wrong thing. The attention should be on the dialogue itself, not the framing mechanism. This doesn’t mean you can’t ever have someone “demand”, “mutter” or “snap” anything… but use it sparingly, and make sure it adds value.

That said… ‘said’ can get monotonous when used on every line of dialogue. You can break this up by using action tags, or leaving some of the dialogue tagless. This works best when there are only two speakers in a conversation.

Clarity trumps style every time. A look of confusion isn’t fashionable!

SAID TAG = comma

ACTION TAG = period

Got it? Good! Go write 🙂

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