Tag, You’re Dialogue!

Let’s start simply.

“Hello,” he said.

The phrase “he said” at the end is called a dialogue tag. It gives the reader some information about the person speaking, or serves as some kind of frame for the dialogue. If you’ve ever read a book and gotten lost as two characters speak, you’ll understand why dialogue tags can be important. Too many can get cumbersome and repetitive, but too few may force your reader to read back to remember who is saying what.

Opinions vary as to how many lines of dialogue you can get away with before you have to tag a line, but in addition to the possibility of your reader getting lost as to who is speaking, dialogue alone is also a bit sparse, and begins to look more like a screenplay. As we’ve noted in other posts, a novel is not a screenplay. Two or three lines of dialogue without any tags is pretty safe. Ten lines without tags, not safe.

Dialogue tags can come at the front, in the middle, or at the end of a piece of dialogue. Use all three to switch up your prose. One thing to be careful about is where in the middle of a piece of dialogue you put the break. Here’s a sample sentence that shows what not to do:

“I don’t know why you asked me, but I don’t,” he said, “care to answer the question.”

There’s a natural flow to every sentence, and natural points of break. Commas are the safest bet. In the dialogue above, I’ve cut the sentence where there is no comma—in other words right in the middle of a statement. A much more natural cut would be at the first comma:

“I don’t know why you asked me,” he said, “but I don’t care to answer the question.”

Next up: Learn more about correct punctuation in dialogue tags, which verbs to use, and which to avoid, in “Tag, You’re Dialogue! Punctuation Edition.”

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