When considering dialogue, many authors’ eyes will glaze over, or they panic, as memories of incomprehensible school lessons come flooding back.

To help ease the pain, we will start with one of the simplest, yet most powerful, aspects of dialogue: tagging.

Tagging is the process of telling a reader who is speaking.

For example:

“Hello,” John said.

The “John said” part is the tag. This is also known as “attribution,” in that the dialogue is attributed to John.

The best way to consider tagging is with this one simple principle:

Tagging is about showing the reader who is speaking, and that is all. It is not about telling the reader HOW the person is speaking.

This is a simple principle but incredibly powerful.

Let’s look at another example. In this one, we are doing it wrong. We are not only SHOWING the reader who is speaking but also TELLING them how:

“Hello,” John growled.

In the above example, John didn’t say anything; he growled it.

So, why is it so wrong to tag speech in this way?

The simplest answer is that it looks amateurish. It’s the kind of dialogue you see in a schoolkid’s textbook or from a two-bit creative writing class. If you use this type of tagging, you will be flagging yourself as a newbie author with little confidence in your ability to SHOW emotion.

There is a more complex reason too …

When you write “John growled,” you are TELLING the reader the way in which John is speaking. As we know, TELLING is bad. It pushes the reader onto the back foot and forces them into a passive frame of mind. The alternative is to SHOW them how the speaker is speaking. Rather than relying on tagging to TELL the reader, the author must use the context and texture of the scene to SHOW the reader. The words and actions that have come before the dialogue will SHOW the reader about John’s frame of mind and will allow the reader to adjust the dialogue within his or her mind’s eye.

So … what’s the best practice when tagging dialogue?

The answer is to use SAID.

Said is a magic word. Readers are so used to seeing it that they start to ignore the word. It becomes a punctuation mark.

There is a side effect to this approach. When tagging dialogue with said, you can get a lot of said ping-pong action.

Take this example:

“Hi,” John said.

“Hi,” Peter said.

“How are you doing?” John said.

“Good,” Peter said. “You?”

“Good. Thanks for asking,” John said.

As you see, we have lots of “John said” and “Peter said” occurrences. There’s actually a very simple solution to fix this. Don’t tag.

Readers aren’t stupid. If there are just two people speaking in a scene, the readers don’t need to be told time and again who is speaking.

As we examined in a previous chapter, speech is written in an action/reaction process. This means the reader will know that if one character speaks first, another character will follow. If there are only two characters in a scene you can start to assume the reader will be able to follow the pattern.

This means you can just ignore the attribution after you first identify each speaker involved.

Here’s the example from above, written with a bit of common sense:

“Hi,” John said.

“Hi,” Peter said.

“How you doing?”

“Good. You?”

“Good. Thanks for asking.”

This is the basics of writing dialogue and is the foundation from which you should build. There are also a couple of additional writing habits that will bring sparkle to your writing.

The first is to consider where to add the tag. The best place is at the end of the dialogue.

For example:

“Good. Thanks for asking,” John said.

Occasionally, you might want to spice it up or simply produce a different tempo in a long section of dialogue. In this case, put the tag where it fits naturally.

For example:

“Good,” John said. “Thanks for asking.”

However, here’s one word of warning. When moving tags from the end of the dialogue, don’t put it before the dialogue. It looks messy and marks you as an amateur.

This example is just plain wrong:

John said, “Good. Thanks for asking.”

Clarity in your writing should always be your goal, and, with this in mind, you should always stick with the attribution you set up first in your scene. If you start the scene saying, “the boy said,” don’t switch halfway through the scene. The “boy” should not suddenly become “Peter.” The thinking here is that, in a real-life conversation, you would not change the way you refer to a person mid-conversation, so why do it in your novel? However, once you are out of a scene, you can change, just not within a scene.

Another sign of amateur writing is the old “said John” approach. This is considered by many to be old-fashioned and outdated. Therefore, “John said” is the way forward. After all, you would write “he said,” but would you write, “said he”?


The Writing Manual Copyright © 2018 by BubbleCow. All Rights Reserved.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *