Solutions to the dialogue Tag

A post at Writer Unboxed: A Dozen Solutions to the “Dialogue Tag”

What an odd title! Solutions to the dialogue tag. I’m sure the author means, solutions that help in fixing up bad dialogue tags, or something like that. Dialogue tags are not, of course, in need of a solution in general. You have to have enough to let the reader easily follow which character is saying what. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of reading a tag-free section of dialogue and getting confused and having to back up and count lines to see who said something. You know what prevents that problem? Correct use of dialogue tags.

Of course I wrote a post about this quite some time ago. Let me see. Oh, here: Dialogue Tags: The Bad, The Visible, The Audible, And The Absent. Among other things, I hit overuse of “said” in that post, but the problem was not entirely due to use of “said” — it was due to lack of variation in sentence structure AND the use of “said.” I also provided what I consider some great examples of dialogue, with appropriate tags, including movement tags.

I’m quite sure movement tags are one of the “solutions” proposed in the linked post. Let’s just see …

In other eras, that was accomplished by verbs and adverbs.  People didn’t just speak; they screamed, snarled, muttered, and moaned. Nowadays, though, the neutral said is preferred.

Yeah, uh huh, see my linked post for how to screw up dialogue by using “said.”

“Said” is not preferred. Smooth use of all dialogue tags is preferred. Right now, three short paragraphs into this post, and I’m already feeling argumentative, even somewhat hostile. The post really put my back up with that facile “said is preferred.” Let’s see if it manages to say anything I agree with. …

Good heavens, this post is defining “dialogue tag” to include only movement tags.

Enter the dialogue tag—an extra phrase that precedes or follows an utterance. With a sigh. Lifting an eyebrow. Her voice growing shrill.

Who in the world defines “dialogue tag” in a way that excludes “he said”? I mean, what?

And look here! The very first suggestion is to use VERBS, exactly as the post said was too “high-drama” just a few paragraphs above!

FIRST, let’s look at some strategies that include a line of dialogue. Use an evocative verb instead of “said”

 “Actually, it’s not okay,” Ellen snapped.

The verb snapped is economical, conveying a tone of voice and the emotion behind it in a single word.

What happened to “said” is preferred?

Okay, I have to admit, the rest of the post does in fact manage to show many useful techniques for delivering the same line of dialogue. It really does. Here, look:

“Actually,” Ellen said, her voice cold, “it’s not okay.”

“Actually,” Ellen said. She dropped the words like chips of ice into a bowl. “Actually, it’s not okay.”

I do like that, but I would adjust it this way:

“Actually,” Ellen said, dropping the words like chips of ice into a bowl, “actually, you know what, it’s not okay.”

But moving on, here are a couple more suggestions for the same line:

Ellen’s smile disappeared. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not okay.   

Ellen pulled in her breath and shifted the phone to her other hand. “Actually,” she said, “it’s not okay.”

Plus lots of movements that permit the dialogue to be left out entirely, conveying the idea that whatever it was, it wasn’t okay. Like this:

Ellen crossed the boarding area in three quick strides and banged her palm against the wall.

FINE. I think it’s useful to take the same line and present it in a lot of different ways. I just think it’s both unnecessary and stupid to start by saying “said is preferred” without pausing to consider the obvious problems with restricting the use of other verbs, especially if you’re going to go right on and suggest that other verbs are actually peachy. Of course the post says “if used sparingly,” but that’s true of practically everything, including “said.” Seriously, click through to my other post to see how to make “said” as obtrusive as possible.

This post doesn’t admit that adverbs in dialogue tags are also okay, but they are. That, too, is addressed in my linked post. I will draw a deep breath here and add, if used sparingly.

The overall rule is:

Use dialogue tags, including said, including other verbs, including adverbs, including absolutely everything, smoothly, in order to convey the proper feel of the sentence to the reader while preventing the tags from becoming obtrusive.

This post is okay. Parts of it are good. But as always, better advice is to open ANY beautifully written novel and look at what excellent stylists actually DO when they are actually writing. Then throw away ALL advice about how you should write and what’s passé in modern novels and just write effective prose.

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12 thoughts on “Solutions to the dialogue Tag”

  1. The important thing to remember in the punctuation side is that if the verb does not actually involve uttering words, it’s an action tag and does not go in the same sentence as the words without a different verb.

    “Yes.” She smiled.

    “Yes,” she said, and smiled.

    but not

    “Yes,” she smiled.

    And “smiled” is far from the most absurd said-bookism I’ve heard of. “Polevaulted” is the one I remember. . .

  2. Mary Catelli, why is a comma linking two closely consecutive sentences forbidden if the first sentence is someone saying something and the second does not contain a saying-type verb?
    Other sentences can be linked by a comma.
    “The house was derelict, the bridge had fallen down, the whole area was in decline.”
    Separate grammatical sentences (but closely related in content or timing) can be linked by commas, so why would that not be allowed for a saying-sentence and an action-sentence?

    “Yes,” she smiled, and I immediately jumped up to arrange it.
    Could this not be a similar 3 sentences linked by commas example as the example about the derelict house?
    (And it it’s allowed for 3 linked sentences, then why not for 2?)

    Sorry, it may be stupid but it’s a genuine question; I didn’t pick this rule up instinctively from my reading.

  3. Addendum, I instinctively expect the punctuation to go outside the quotation marks in that case, as it does in Dutch.
    “Yes”, she smiled, and I immediately jumped up to arrange it.

    It’s not that long ago that I realised that in English that first comma is supposed to go inside the quotation marks, and it still doesn’t make sense to me, as there is no pause + continuation in the utterance; there is a pause in the reading rythm.

  4. Mary Catelli, yes, and those mistakes can be hard to weed out, especially if it’s not crystal clear what counts as a “said” and what counts as movement. I had one copy editor declare (via changing commas to periods) that “She went on” should count as a movement, not a verb, for punctuation purposes. I’ve never truly agreed, but I usually use a period for that these days because she was a good copy editor and was probably right.

  5. Hanneke, if you added the “and,” then the comma would be fine, as one of Mary Catelli’s examples shows. Or in a series with commas, again, fine.

    But at least in the US, editors and copy editors are death on constructions like “It’s okay with me,” she smiled and very definitely agree there should be a period there, not a comma.

    And yes, unlike in the UK, in American punctuation, we always, always, always put punctuation inside quote marks. At least the utter consistency of this rule makes it easy to remember. However, I admit, in informal contexts, I sometimes deliberately choose the UK variant that says, “When using verbs like ‘said’, thus and so.” There are times when it just makes no sense to put the punctuation inside quote marks.

  6. Hanneke–
    For the comma, you need a conjunction, otherwise it’s a run-on sentence (ROS). Why do I not like run-ons? Because they bring back memories of threats of an “F” grade from my ferocious HS English teacher. He’d fail for sentence fragments, too. But fragments actually are sometimes useful, while it is usually clearer to avoid the ROS.
    Here it is without the ROS.
    She smiled, and said “yes.”
    And here it is with a sentence fragment:
    She smiled. And said “yes.”
    Depending on the question, that actually works better.

  7. Hanneke, if it’s not clear still, the objection is that words cannot be smiled. Or to put it another way, the sentence ““Yes”, she smiled,” is understood as “She smiled the word ‘Yes’.” One can gasp out words, or shout words but one cannot smile words. So if you want to say she said yes and smiled, the correct choices are

    “Yes.” She smiled.

    “Yes,” she said, and smiled.

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