Writing Tips: Dialogue Tags in Fiction
Dialogue is an important part of fiction. But when you have multiple characters, you may need to help the reader keep track of who is speaking. This is where dialogue tags come in. But what exactly are dialogue tags? And how do you present them in your writing? Let us explain.
Basic Dialogue Tags
Dialogue tags tell us who is speaking. One common way to do this is to add a dialogue tag after the spoken dialogue. For instance, a line of dialogue in fiction may look like this:
“Digging is hard work,” Terri said.
Here, we can see that “Terri” is speaking. And as shown above, if a dialogue tag comes after speech, you will usually end the spoken part with a comma inside the closing quotation mark.
This changes slightly with questions and exclamations. In these cases, you should omit the comma and give the relevant punctuation mark instead (i.e., a question mark or exclamation point):
“Digging is hard work!” said Terri.
“Why is digging so hard?” asked Terri.
However, while these do not use a comma, the punctuation still goes inside the closing quote mark.
Dialogue Tag Position
You can also place a dialogue tag before speech. For example:
James said, “I am home at last.”
The key difference here is the punctuation. Rather than ending the spoken dialogue with a comma, we use a period (or other terminal punctuation) to show that the sentence has ended. In addition, we use a comma before the opening quotation mark to introduce the dialogue.
To place a dialogue tag mid-dialogue, meanwhile, you will need to introduce it with a comma. However, the rest of the punctuation will depend on the situation. If the line of dialogue you’re interrupting would be a single sentence without the tag, start and end with a comma:
“I am going home,” said James, “to sleep.”
But if the dialogue tag comes at the end of a full sentence, you should use a period before beginning a new sentence when the dialogue continues:
“I am so tired,” said James. “I can’t wait to get home.”
Here, for example, we use a period after “James” because “I am so tired” is a sentence by itself.
Omitting Dialogue Tags
You don’t always have to name the person who is speaking in a dialogue tag. If you have already named the speaker in the text, for example, you might use a suitable pronoun instead:
Aisha looked around the room. “It could be tidier,” she said.
In this case, we’ve used the pronoun “she” to avoid repeating “Aisha.”
Alternatively, you can omit the dialogue tag completely. This is quite important when writing a conversation, as saying “he said” and “she said” for every line would be repetitive:
“Have you been here before?” Tim asked.
“No,” said Aisha.
“Did you want me to lead the way?”
“Sure. I’ll follow.”
Tim walked down the corridor. “Are you nervous?” he asked.
“Yeah. A bit. Maybe.”
“Don’t be. It’ll be fine, I promise.”
Aisha smiled. “Thanks,” she said. “That helps.”
In the exchange above, we don’t need to name the speaker in every line, or even use “he said” and “she said” repeatedly. This is because we know there are two people taking turns to speak, so all we need to do is remind the reader who is speaking from time to time.
The key, then, is to use dialogue tags to ensure clarity, but also to use them sparingly. This will ensure that the dialogue in your writing is easy to follow while also being a pleasure to read.