Dialogue Tags

The dialogue tag is a key component of writing. The tag identifies the speaker or performer of an action in a selected portion of text and can be used to convey emotions or additional details about a specific scene. The tag is also referred to as an attribution element in that it ties a specific portion of text to the previously mentioned actor. In this blog post, I will address two different language components: the different types of sentences and the dialogue tag.

Let’s start with a breakdown of the four basic types of sentences one can write before moving onto dialogue tags. The ending punctuation mark will always determine what type of sentence is written. In this case, there are Declarative, Exclamation, Interrogative, and Imperative.

The Declarative sentence is used when you want to write a statement.

For example: “I’m going home.”

The Exclamation sentence is used like a declarative but with more force, typically allowing the character to show emotion.

For example: “I hate you!”

The Interrogative sentence is used when you want to ask a question.

For example: “Frank, what are your plans for tonight?”

The Imperative sentence is used when you want something to happen, as in a command, such as ordering an action.

For example: “Open the door.”

Got it? Alrighty. Let’s move on.

 

When writing dialogue, quotation marks are the most important punctuation mark used throughout the time characters talk to themselves or each other. Believe me, I’ve attempted to read several narratives over the last few years when it seemed like quotation marks were optional.

For example: “I’m going home.”

A dialogue tag comes either before, in the middle of, or after the dialogue. The point of the dialogue tag is to provide additional clues as to what the characters are doing, feeling, thinking, etc., while either he or she is talking or being talked to. Sometimes it can be left out completely depending on the conversation or what is going on between the characters. If the writer believes his or her audience will be able to differentiate how the speaking character is feeling based on their dialogue, then a dialogue tag is unnecessary. I’ll provide an example of this below.

Here’s an example of dialogue with a dialogue tag written in a declarative sentence.

I’m going home, she cried as she ran out the door.

You should always include quotation marks when writing dialogue. When characters are talking, quotation marks will go right before the first word and after the last word of what the character is saying.

What if you’re not writing a declarative statement? Perhaps, it’s an exclamation.

We did it!He jumped up and down and ran around the room.

This is a perfect example of letting the reader know the character is excited. There are the exclamation mark and the tag that lets the reader know what the character is doing in his excited state.

How about an interrogative or question?

“’Will you please help me?” her eyebrows raised as she looked in her husband’s direction.

What about an imperative statement or command?

Close the stove after you take the pie out.” He leaned over and grabbed the pie, turning to the counter to gently place it down.

As for an example showing dialogue in which a dialogue isn’t necessary, here you go:

“I can’t believe you!”

How do you think this character is feeling? With the exclamation, they sound like they’re emotional. They’re more than likely upset, mad, angry, etc., at whoever it is they’re speaking to. Right? Based on that simple line of dialogue, it should be easy to tell that the character is feeling a negative emotion. Of course, if you really want to add that dialogue tag, you can, but be more detailed oriented about it. So, how about including an action to go along with those negative feelings?

“I can’t believe you!” she screamed.

With the screaming part included, she is obviously mad. But the reader should have already figured that out, even without the “she screamed” part. So, all the reader learns with the dialogue tag included is that she screams at another person.

What if I changed it to this?

“I can’t believe you!” she screamed, slapping his cheek as she turned to leave.

Now there’s an action include. The character screams at someone, slaps the person’s face, and then turns to leave. Now the reader has a little more to go on. That additional information will provide the reader with a better image in their head to go along with the words they read.

 

Before I go too far, let’s figure out the correct placement for the end punctuation. This is easy.

Looking at the examples I’ve provided above, you’ll have an idea…maybe. But I’ll break it down further.

Let’s start with the declarative example from above:

I’m going home, she cried as she ran out the door.

With this example, the reader will be left with the image of the girl crying out as she runs towards the door. With that in mind, the comma is used to separate the dialogue from the dialogue tag and tells us that she’s talking and acting at the same time. Additionally, when starting the dialogue tag the first letter will be a lowercase letter, in this case, it’s an s.

Now if the example changed to:

I’m going home.” She turned as she headed to the door.

This example tells the reader that the girl talks first and then proceeds to the door. So, she’s not talking and acting at the same time. Therefore, the two parts of this declarative sentence are separated by a period. She talks. She does her action. Keep in mind, when it’s not happening at the same time, the dialogue tag will start with a capitalized letter, in this case, it’s an S. Of course, if you, as the writer, want to have them taking place at the same time, the dialogue/dialogue tag can easily be rewritten so that intention is clear.

Declarative Dialogue (period) Dialogue tag = Not happening at the same time.

Declarative Dialogue (comma) Dialogue tag = Happening at the same time.

Imperative Dialogue (period) Dialogue tag = Not happening at the same time.

Imperative Dialogue (comma) Dialogue tag = Happening at the same time.

Easy peasy.

 

Now if we look at the Exclamation and Interrogative sentences, they’re basically done the same way as the Declarative and Imperative sentences, except the punctuation stays the same, as in you will include the ! or ?. The only part that will change with be the first letter in the dialogue tag. Will it be an uppercase or lowercase, that depends on what you’re telling or asking.

As I previously stated, dialogue tags are not always required or needed after a line of dialogue. Take this next example:

What are you doing?” he asked.

What’s the problem here? Can you find it?

Think of it this way, this character has just asked another character what he or she is doing. Right? Right. So…why would the dialogue tag include he asked? Obviously, he just asked a question, hence the quotes and question mark. Dialogue tags like the above would be considered redundant; basically, you’re repeating yourself. The reader will know that he has just asked a question, so there’s no reason to end the dialogue with he asked. Make sense?

The following link is s a page that provides additional information on the do’s and don’ts of dialogue tags: http://nomistakespublishing.com/dialogue-tags-use/

 

What if you want to include your dialogue tag within the dialogue itself? That’s pretty easy, too!

Here’s an example:

I wish we could leave this place, she quietly whimpered as she looked at her best friend with a questioning look in her eyes, don’t you wish we could leave?

When the dialogue is interrupted, you want to make sure you still keep it separate from the dialogue tag.

  1. Start with the first quotation mark. Add in your dialogue and end it with a comma as well as your ending quotation mark.
  2. Since the character is talking and acting at the same time, the first letter of the dialogue tag will start with a lowercase s.
  3. At the end of the dialogue tag, include a comma because the character picks right back up with her dialogue. If she wasn’t doing this, then simply end the dialogue tag with a period.
  4. Include the next quotation mark for the second half of the dialogue and a lowercase d. It ends with a question mark (since it’s a question) and the final quotation mark.

Now that part’s done.

 

What about an interrupted Exclamation or Interrogative sentence?

Let’s take a look at the following example which shows an exclamation sentence.

The only difference between the four types of sentences—when it comes to dialogue—is whether you’ll be including a period, comma, exclamation mark, or a question mark and if the dialogue and action are taking place at the same time or not.

If you’re asking a question or making an exclamation, end the dialogue with a question mark or exclamation mark. Simple.

“I can’t wait for the party!” Squealing in delight, she turned to her mother with a big smile. “I’m so excited!”
(Not at the same time.)

“I can’t wait for the party!” she squealed in delight, as she turned to her mother with a big smile, “I’m so excited!”
(At the same time.)

OR

“Are you going to the party?” He looked at his friend with a raised brow. “I hope you are.”
(Not at the same time.)

“Are you going to the party?” he asked looking at his friend with a raised brow, “I hope you are.”
(At the same time.)

 

If you’re making a statement, then it will either be a period or comma. If you’re not sure which it’s supposed to be, ask yourself this. Is the dialogue and dialogue tag taking place at the same time? If yes, then use a comma. If the dialogue is taking place and then the dialogue tag, then use a period.

“I don’t know what to think.She looked to the sky for an answer. “What am I supposed to do?”
(Not at the same time.)

“I don’t know what to think,she whispered as she looked to the sky for an answer, “What am I supposed to do?”
(At the same time.)

 

RECAP:

For Declarative and Imperative, use comma or period to separate dialogue from the tag.

For Exclamation and Interragotive, use “!” (exclamation mark) or “?” (question mark).

If the talking and action are taking place at the same time = start the dialogue tag with a lowercase letter.

If they’re not taking place at the same time = start the dialogue tag with an uppercase letter.

That’s it!

I think that’s pretty much the basics for writing dialogue as well as including a dialogue tag. Just remember, dialogue tags are not always necessary or needed. It all depends on what’s going on between the characters. An editor can always help you, as the writer, out with issues relating to this.

I hope you have found this blog useful. If you have any questions, comments, concerns, jokes, funnies, please feel free to contact me. Thanks for reading!

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