Dialogue Tags-Part I of II

Beginning writers have a lot to learn. Even things such as dialogue tags and punctuation can be overwhelming and hold back someone from their writing. Therefore, I figure a post on the proper use of dialogue tags may be helpful for someone out there embarking on writing.

What is a dialogue tag?

A dialogue tag is a subject and verb combined to indicate the speaker of a line of dialogue. To put it more simply, it's the "he said" before or after a bit of dialogue. In the examples scattered throughout, I'm going to put all the dialogue tags in red font.

Example A:
"Hello," he said.

Example B:
He said, "Hello." 

Simple tag:

A simple tag is the simplest tag you could come up with, using the verb "to say."

Example C:
"He/She said."

Slightly more complex tags:

Anything like, "he/she interjected," or "he/she admitted," etc. Any verb which indicates speech. Note that "he/she grinned" would not be considered a dialogue tag, as someone does not "grin" words. Some other "tag" verbs: concede, yell, shout, whisper, murmur, state, lie (as in to tell a lie), add, reply, gasp, etc.

Note also that while I tend to put my examples in past tense, books that are written in present tense alter the verb tense: "he/she says," "I say," "he admits," "she concedes," etc.

Generally "said" is considered the safest tag, although dialogue tags themselves have become less desirable. (More on this next week.)

Invisible Tags:

An invisible tag is when a tag doesn't exist, but is implied by the character interaction or the exchange of conversation surrounding it. 

Example D:

"How are you today," Rose asked.

"Oh, I'm swell," Amy replied.

"Are you sure you aren't feeling sick?"

"Oh, no, I'm much better today."

In the third and fourth line, there is no tag for either speaker, but it's assumed that they trade off speaking. This assumption is made clearer by what is being said. If there is any doubt of who is saying a line, a simple tag should be added.

When do you use a dialogue tag?

The may go directly before or after a sentence of dialogue in order to identify the speaker of the sentence. When using a tag, pay attention to how I use both quotation marks and commas in the example below. Also, keep an eye out for those invisible tags. Although some examples appear very close to each other, there's a reason I chose to include each (see below for a quick explanation of each).

Example 1:

"How are you doing today? I heard you were sick," Rose said.

Amy said, "Fine, thanks."

Example 2:

"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose whispered.

Amy murmured, "Fine, thanks."

Example 3*:
"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose said.

"Oh no," Amy said, "everything's all better now, thanks."

"Really? I thought you were still sick this morning."

"No, I was better last night. I had a big breakfast this morning and feel fine now."

Example 4: 

"How are you doing today? I heard you were sick," Rose asked.

"Fine, thanks," Amy said.

Example 5*:
"I heard you were sick. How are you today?" Rose said.

"Oh no," Amy said. "Everything's all better now, thanks."

"Really? I thought you were still sick this morning."

"No, I was better last night. I had a big breakfast this morning and feel fine now."

*The difference between Examples 3 & 5 are discussed under the punctuation section below.

Each of the changes I made in these examples are subtle, made to emphasize the proper punctuation with tags, but read on for a further discussion of punctuation.

How do you punctuate dialogue? 

Quotes should obviously enclose all the dialogue being spoken, and in British English, single quotes are used instead of double quotes. However, the punctuation varies depending on the placement of the tag.

Tag follows the dialogue:

The comma should go inside the closing quotation mark, to be immediately followed by the tag and a period.

Tag precedes the dialogue:

This is a touch more complicated because of capitalization. 

When a tag precedes the dialogue, there should be a comma following the tag, then a quotation mark and then a capital letter to indicate the beginning of the sentence of dialogue. 

Note that when it goes , " it is followed by a CAPITAL letter (See Example 5). This is because the first word of a sentence is capitalized, and the first word of a speaker's dialogue is likewise capitalized. The exception is if your dialogue tag interrupts the speaker's sentence (See Example 3). 

Example 3 and 5 only vary by two very small things. Did you find them? A sharp reader would pick up on them. Go look, I'll wait. Back? Good. If you'll notice in Example 5, there is a period where a comma was in Example 3, and then a capital "Everything's" in Example 5 instead of a lowercase "everything's" in Example 3. The single reason for this is that I decided to have Amy split her response into two sentences in Example 5. Instead of rushing through her response to Amy, she took her time. 

An alternate way to write each line would be:

Example 3a: "Oh no, everything's all better now, thanks," Amy said. 
Example 3b: Amy said, "Oh no, everything's all better now, thanks."

Example 5a: "Oh no. Everything's all better now, thanks," Amy said. 
Example 5b: Amy said, "Oh no. Everything's all better now, thanks."

Both are equally correct, neither one is better than the other. (Well, none of this dialogue is going to win me the Pulitzer…) 

The slight difference suggests merely that Amy took her time replying in Example 5, that's all. Punctuation is a writer's friend, and can create a fast-paced, angry denial or a lingering, relaxed conversation.

Example 1 is the most basic example, simple dialogue exchanged.
Example 2 shows how a question mark takes the place of a comma before a closing quotation mark, as well as using slightly more complex tags with different verb choices. These verbs suggest that Amy and Rose are in a location which requires quiet voices.
Example 3 gives you an example of dialogue interrupted by a tag, as well as invisible tags.
Example 4 gives you an example for dealing with commas and the verb "asked."
Example 5 offers a variation of Example 3, showing how punctuation can affect the reader's interpretation of the otherwise exact same sentence.

Wait, what about other types of tags?

There are other ways to use tags, as well as invisible tags, but I'm running out of room on this post. So I'm going to wait until next week to discuss more complex tags. Check back next Wednesday!