Tagging

When considering dialogue many writers will glaze over, or 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, or attribution, is the process of telling a writer who is speaking. For example:

‘Hello,’ John said.

The John said is the tag. This is also known as “attribution”.

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 example we are doing it wrong. We are not only SHOWING the reader who is speaking, but also TELLING them how:

‘Hello,’ John growled.

In this 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 school kid’s textbook or from a two-bit creative writing class. If you use this type of tagging you will be flagging yourself up as a writer with little confidence in your ability to SHOW emotion.

There is a more complex reason…

When you write, “John growled”, you are TELLING the writer 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 then relying on tagging to TELL the reader, the writer must use the context and texture of the scene to SHOW the story. The words and actions that have come before the dialogue, will SHOW the reader John’s frame of mind and will allow them to adjust the dialogue within their mind’s eye.

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

The answer is 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. 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”. There’s actually a very simple solution. Just don’t tag!

Readers aren’t stupid. If there are just two people speaking in a scene, they don’t need to be told time and again who is speaking. This means you can just ignore the attribution.

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:4

‘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 were it fits naturally. For example:

‘Good,’ John said. ‘Thanks for asking.’

However, there’s one word of warning. When moving tagging from the end of the dialogue, don’t put it at the start. It looks messy and marks you out 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 in the first instance. If you start the scene saying “the boy said” don’t switch half way through. The “boy” should not suddenly become “Peter.” The thinking here is that in a real life conversation, you would not change the way to referred 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 in the know to be old fashioned and out dated. Therefore, ‘John said’ is the way forward. After all you would write ‘he said, but would you write ‘said he’?

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