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 way to do this is to add a dialogue tag after the spoken dialogue. For instance:
‘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 would 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.
And 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 difference here is the punctuation. Rather than ending the spoken dialogue with a comma, we use a full stop (or other terminal punctuation) to show that the sentence has ended. In addition, we introduce the dialogue with a comma before the opening quotation mark.
To place a dialogue tag mid-speech, meanwhile, you will need to introduce it with a comma. However, the rest of the punctuation will depend on the situation. If the line you’re interrupting would be a single sentence without the tag, start and end with a comma:
‘I am going home,’ said James, ‘for some much-needed sleep.’
But if the dialogue tag comes at the end of a full sentence, you should use a full stop 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 full stop after ‘James’ because ‘I am so tired’ is a sentence by itself.
Omitting Dialogue Tags
You don’t always have to name the speaker in a dialogue tag. If you have already named them in the text, you might use a suitable pronoun instead:
Aisha looked around the room. ‘It could be tidier,’ she said.
In this case, for example, we’ve used the pronoun ‘she’ to avoid repeating ‘Aisha’. Alternatively, you can omit the dialogue tag completely. This is important when writing a long 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. Rather, 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 make the dialogue in your writing easy to follow.