While we often think of dialogue as the words that come out of a character’s mouth, written dialogue actually comes in two parts: what’s inside the quotation marks, (the words a character says) and the words outside the quotation marks (who said it and how it was said).
Dialogue Tags are the words outside the quotation marks that accompany the speech within the quotation marks.
In scenes where two characters are speaking—and especially those with more than two characters— dialogue tags are important to help the reader identify who is speaking. However, you have to use tags judiciously to keep from sounding repetitive.
There are two types of dialogue tags:
1. Taglines: typically he said/she said.
2. Action Tags: movements or actions that show the reader what the character is doing or thinking.
TAGLINES are the simplest way to show who is speaking. While some new writers like to use a variety of tags, such as reply, demand, offer, growl, or inquire in an effort to sound original, it’s best to use said most of the time. He said/she said disappear on the page unless they’re overused, acting more like punctuation than a verb. More descriptive taglines tend to draw attention to the mechanics of the writing.
Sometimes writers try to prop up said with an adverb. For instance: “That’s funny,” she said laughingly. Adverbs might be acceptable grammatically, but they make for weak writing. (Mark Twain supposedly said, “If you see an adverb, kill it,” and he wasn’t far wrong.) Rather than adding an adverb to a weak verb, try strengthening the dialogue.
Weak dialogue tags don’t have to include adverbs. She said in surprise, for instance, is a weak tagline, even without the use of an adverb. Better to show the reader that the character is surprised—or astonished, disappointed, or relieved—through the dialogue or his actions than to tell it.
Of course, your character can mutter, ask, or whisper occasionally, although those types of taglines become overused quickly. You can sometimes show how a character says something. For instance, “Watch out!” doesn’t need a tagline (unless the speaker requires identifi cation), since what is being shouted and the exclamation point indicate that the speaker is shouting.
YOU CAN’T HISS A SENTENCE. Some verbs, such as laugh, grimace, or hiss shouldn’t be used as dialogue tags, although writers sometimes do it anyway. Try to laugh, sigh, hiss, giggle, or smile a line of dialogue. It isn’t possible. Instead, if you want your character to laugh or smile while speaking, use those verbs as part of an action tag. For example, instead of saying “That’s hilarious,” he laughed, write “That’s hilarious.” He laughed. Or “That’s hilarious,” he said, laughing. This indicates that the character is laughing after he spoke, rather than while he’s speaking, which is pretty tough to do. When you use He laughed in a separate sentence, it becomes an action tag.
If you are attending the NJSCBWI Conference in Princeton, NJ – June 8th, 9th, and 10th, you can sign up for Anita Nolan’s Intensive and Workshop. She is also speaking at the NESCBWI this weekend.