Well guys, my streak came to an end. I missed the prompt yesterday. In my defense I am dealing with a broken foot that happened yesterday morning. But, I don’t like to make excuses.
We all knew this day would come sooner or later. So, we move forward. February 22nd will come around again and I will make a prompt for that day then.
So today, the writing prompt will have a little lesson and be more of a challenge than the weekend ones. But, before I explain the prompt in detail I want you to write it out.
For today’s focus we will move back to dialogue. Just a little tip and snippet for those of you looking to make your writing better.
The dialogue tag is the “who said what” part that comes after the quote.
For example, in the following: “I really don’t like where you are going with this.” she said.
The “she said” is the dialogue tag.
So now, I want you to go over the prompt, write out today’s little snippet and then come back to learn a bit more.
Write a dialogue between two people. Have the conversation last for at least 2 minutes.
Alright. Off you go. Remember, there is no scene set up (though you can break the conversation up a bit if you need your characters to move around or take an action). Back and forth dialogue is all we are looking at here.
Now don’t cheat! Write your dialogue first, then when you are done, come back here and finish reading about dialogue tags.
You cheated, didn’t you?
Fine. But I warned you.
There are two sides to the dialogue tag coin. On the one side, the good side, the make you milk and cookies side, the only words you need are “asked” and “said.”
The other side of the coin, the evil side, the kick you in the face while you are on the ground side, says “said is dead!” and want you to write full flowing descriptions for each line.
Can you guess which side I am on?
How to Use Dialog Tags
Before we go further, let’s take a moment to make sure we are even using dialogue tags correctly. If you are American (like me) you will say dialog tag (not dialogue like I use. But I am a silly American) and you will have slightly different rules.
First thing to note is the position. A dialogue tag can come into the sentence in three places. You will find them in the first place, in the middle or at the end of the sentence.
If the tag comes first, you will follow it with a comma and then have what is being said in quotes. Remember American English writers, punctuation goes inside the quotes.
Example: Mary said, “I don’t want to choose a side.”
You can also use the dialogue tag to break up the sentence and explain who is speaking by placing it in the middle. Again, punctuation will be inside the quotes when around the spoken words. Plus, you will always use a comma at the first break point and again after the tag.
Example: “I know you don’t want to choose,” Peter said, “but you have to.”
And finally, the most common usage is to have the tag at the end of the sentence. Remember once more, punctuation inside the quotes and at the end of the tag.
Example: “Do I have to pick right now?” asked Mary.
Name first or first name? That is up to you. Name first is usually always used when the tag is at the beginning. It just sounds better to say “Mary said…” than to say “Said Mary…”
For the middle and end tags, though, you can go with the one you like best. Either “Peter said.” or “said Peter.” Study the three examples above for punctuation usage and capitalization.
How Often Should You Use Dialog Tags?
People concern themselves with repetition and consistency. It is often asked how many times do you need to use the dialogue tag, especially in a long conversation (like today’s writing prompt? *mind blown*).
The truth is, it doesn’t really matter. Honestly. You want to use it as much as needed to keep the conversation straight. As long as you use a new line for each new speaker and establish who is speaking in turn at the beginning, you can go with what you feel.
The general guide, though, is that short sentences and a quick conversation of back and forth speaking only needs the speakers names established once and then you can drop the tags completely.
If you have a longer conversation, or the spoken words and sentences go on for more than a few words, use tags more often. This will help your readers know who is talking without having to re-read the conversation from the start.
Is Said Alive or Dead?
And we are back. The two sided coin debate. I’m going to break it down into two points and let you decide for yourself.
The first point will be which side of the coin is right. The second point will be my personal thoughts on the matter.
Point 1: Honestly, truly and honestly, it makes no difference. Can you publish a book using only said and asked? Yes. Can you publish a book using long, descriptive tags? Also yes. The truth of the matter, there is no right way or wrong way.
Point 2: If you use anything besides said and asked (or their derivatives such as “questioned” or “answered”), you are doing it wrong. Here’s why.
I can kill the entire debate with a single question. But when I ask, you have to be 100% honest with your answer. Regardless of which side of the coin you currently are on, answer truthfully.
What is the purpose of a dialogue tag?
The answer, dear reader, is that the purpose of a dialogue tag is to inform the reader of who is speaking.
That’s it. That is the only purpose of the tag and that is why you should only ever use asked or said.
Now, before you get all read faced and head to the comments, I want you to think about it for a second. In movies, do the actors say who is speaking?
Do we have a scene with Mary and Peter and after Peter speaks on screen does he say out loud “said Peter?”
No, of course not. That would be ridiculous, right? So then, they serve no other purpose, do they?
What if Peter is angry, though? As a writer, I can use the dialogue tag to show that Peter is angry. I can say something like:
“I need you to choose a side right now!” Peter said, his face flushed red and his veins bulging as he glared at the indecisive Mary.
That works, right? Oh man! We know Peter is mad now for sure!
Can you hear my eyes rolling right now? Cause, I think it is quite audible.
Let’s got back to the movie reference. When Peter speaks on screen we have already established he does not say “said Peter” every time he talks. So, I’ll ask you, does he instead go “I am angry!” when he is done talking?
No. In the film we can see that he is angry, we can hear the tone of his voice and we can hear the yelling and see him throw things on the ground and kick puppies (or whatever Peter does when he is mad).
So why should your book be any different? If you write a scene and Peter punches a wall, throws a vase on the ground and points a finger at Mary then says the line “You need to choose right now!”
Do you think there is a reader out there that is going to wonder if Peter is angry? Do you honestly believe that someone would read that scene and read about Peters actions and then think, “Gosh, Peter was acting mad, and he was throwing things around, but I bet he calmed down real quick and is going to buy Mary a dozen roses cause he is so in love with her right now.”
No. You are a writer. You are the builder of scenes, the creator of worlds, the giver of life. Why would you throw out your skill and talent to use extraneous words when they aren’t needed?
Oh, But There is More
One last thing to consider. When you are writing your longer dialogue, do you want your reader getting all excited, wondering which side Mary is going to pick and how angry is Peter going to get, only to wash it all away by making them read an entire extra sentence before the next person speaks?
C’mon son! (said in my best Ed Lover voice).
That would be like watching a UFC fight and the referee is holding a microphone. After each punch was landed, or a kick delivered, the action stopped and the referee said “Bob threw a punch.” Then another kick is sent in, the two fighters stop, the referee says “John kicked Bob in the throat!”
How fucking boring would that be? No way! Let Bob and John get in there and try to kill each other for 3 minutes.
Your dialogue is the same thing. It is the action of your story. It is the verbal UFC fight between two or more people. Let them get in there and duke it out.
The words “said” and “asked” disappear. They become invisible to the reader. You keep the reader informed of who is speaking that turn, much like the ring side announcer saying what is going on while the two combatants are fighting.
What you don’t do, though, is stop the fight to alert the reader who’s turn it is to speak.
So come on over to my side of the coin. It’s faster, easier and a smoother read in the end. And if you are here to become a better writer, author a book and get published… said is not dead. Said is very much alive.
Disagree? Change my mind in the comment section. If you can.