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.

Let me preface this by saying that most fiction and non-fiction books are written using the Chicago Manual of Style, not the Associate Press Stylebook. The AP Stylebook is used in journalism and web content, but the publishing industry requires the use of CMoS for both fiction and non-fiction.

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”. Basically, you’re determining whether the clauses are independent.

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

That’s a completely independent, 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 independent sentences (sentences that can stand on their own) 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.

Interruptions

Things can get a little more confusing when you start interrupting dialogue, but I’m going to make it simple for you here. You will use either commas or em-dashes to interrupt your dialogue, depending on whether the dialogue and interruption are independent.

“Look,” she said, glancing nervously over her shoulder, “I don’t think we should talk about this here.”

“She said, glancing nervously over her shoulder” cannot stand alone as a sentence–it’s not independent–so commas are appropriate here.

“Look–” she glanced nervously over her shoulder “–I don’t think we should talk about this here.”

Here, both the dialogue and the action are independent, so commas are insufficient (so saith The Great CMoS), and we need to use em-dashes. But wait! It gets even trickier, depending on whether the interruption is purely narrative/syntactical, or whether the words are actually broken. If the action and the words are concurrent, and there is no actual pause, the em-dashes don’t “belong” to the dialogue, and so they go outside the quotation marks.

“I don’t know if”–her voice trembled–“I can ever trust you again.”

There’s no actual interruption in her words here, so the em-dashes go outside the quotes. But if the words are interrupted, the em-dashes go inside the quotes, as follows:

“I don’t know if–” her voice broke, and she swallowed hard “–I can ever trust you again.”

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.”

There IS an exception to this, and that’s when a speaker’s dialogue goes on, and on, and on, and the paragraph starts to get unwieldy. In this case, you may want to insert a line break. The second paragraph will have an opening quotation mark, but don’t use a close-quote until they’re actually done speaking, otherwise it implies a change in speaker. Example:

“We’ve kept the room ready,” the inkeeper said as she led them down the hall. “A bit of a trouble, I might add, to hold it during one of my busiest months, but I won’t let it be said that I don’t honor a bargain. We do honest business here, unlike the Stag or, Lady bless me, the Rowan Circle. I hear they’ve had some trouble with bed mites, you know. I do apologize for the snug size. Not much space for standing but it’s clean and warm, and we’ve a washroom at the end of the hall—we’re the only inn in town with one on the upper level, you know.

“My roof is nothing if not peaceful. I won’t begrudge a man for wearing a blade, but I’ll have no quarrel nor drunkenness. Not that I’d expect anything of the kind from a decent sort such as yourself, but it’s best to have these things understood right out. Well, if you’d like to come down to the commons for something to fill your stomachs, I should have a bit left. I’ll be closing things down in about an hour.”

Note the lack of a closing quote at the end of the first paragraph–this indicates that the following paragraph is also by the same speaker. This can help you confronting your readers with a wall of text whenever someone decides to monologue.

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.

When interrupting dialogue, use commas if the interruption can’t stand alone as a sentence. Use em-dashes if it can. If the action and the dialogue occur simultaneously, the em-dashes go outside the quotation marks. If the dialogue is actually broken, interrupted, or paused, use the em-dashes inside the quotation marks.

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

SAID TAG = comma

ACTION TAG = period

Interruptions. Is the interruption independent? Use an em-dash. If it isn’t, use a comma.
Narrative interruptions that don’t actually break the dialogue are marked with em-dashes outside the quotation marks. Dialogue that’s actually broken or paused will have the em-dashes inside the quotation marks.

Got it? Good! Go write 🙂

Leave a Reply