Dialogue Tags - A Study in Common Errors

Verb and Subject

Incorrect:

"I bet you two had a fine time," said Ben.

When using tags, it's unusual to have the verb before the subject. The general rule of thumb is to use this construction sparingly, as a rare change in pace or flow. In addition, many editors are asking this construction not appear at all in a manuscript.

Correct:

"I bet you two had a fine time," Ben said.

The Comma and As

Incorrect:

"Do you kiss toads often? Or are you just a little weird?" Betty asked, wrinkling her nose in distaste.

"I often find the little green guys cute. You should try it sometime," Bertha said as she giggled.

In both instances, the comma after asked, and the 'as' after said, indicate the dialogue tag isn't necessary. Each is greatly improved by removing the tag and allowing the following sentence to stand on its own.

Correct:

"Do you kiss toads often? Or are you just a little weird?" Betty wrinkled her nose in distaste.

"I often find the little green guys cute. You should try it sometime." Bertha giggled.

Unnecessary Tags

Incorrect:

Mary scoffed at the idea. "I don't think you want me at your party," she replied.

Since we are firmly in Mary's head at the point of her dialogue, it can be assumed it is her reply. If you use a tag like this, ask yourself if it's really necessary. Is it obvious this is her reply? Then you don't need it. New writer's struggle with the idea that every bit of dialogue needs to be accredited to a character, otherwise the reader will be confused. The idea is to write so well from one character's perspective, that the reader will immediately tell who's dialogue it is.

Correct:

Mary scoffed at the idea. "I don't think you want me at your party."

Over Explaining the Tag

Incorrect:

"I don't care if you kiss all the frogs in the world, you aren't bringing that toad to my party," Shelly warned, her voice rising.

Ask yourself these questions when you find yourself hunting for words to explain the dialogue in the tag:

Is Shelly's dialogue showing her warning?

Is it clear from what Shelly says that her voice is rising?

What am I trying to show Shelly feeling with this tag?

You won't need to ask yourself these questions as you discover your own style more, but in the meantime, it's a good idea to look through your tags to see if any of them could be replaced, or simply deleted. Her outrage could have been shown much better by this sentence:

Correct:

"I don't care if you kiss all the frogs in the world, you aren't bringing that toad to my party." Shelly glared, hands on hips.

Conjunction Tags

Incorrect:

"You look lovely in that dress," Biff said, "and I think you're going to be the belle of the ball."

Although this break is all right occasionally, it should be used with extreme caution. A better approach is to lend depth to the moment at the break.

Correct:

"You look lovely in that dress." Biff leaned closer, his words a whisper against her flesh. "I think you're going to be the belle of the ball."

Showing Impact

Incorrect:

She wanted to scream, to run for help, but she remained frozen, like a trapped animal. "You killed him for money?"

"Exactly," he said.

"How could you?" She asked as adrenalin rushed movement back into her limbs and she backed away.

Obviously this is an excerpt from a larger scene. By the time the reader finds this exchange, they'll be familiar with all the players. To add impact to a statement, it's sometimes best to leave a tag off entirely, especially with a two-character exchange.

Correct:

She wanted to scream, to run for help, but she remained frozen, like a trapped animal. "You killed him for money?"

"Exactly."

"How could you?" Adrenalin flooded her limbs and she backed away.

Multiple Tags

Incorrect:

"You have to understand," Sean said as he clenched her wrists tighter. His eyes darkened with a menacing plea as he stated, "He was evil, I had to do it."

In this paragraph, we are firmly in Sean's head by the action described in the middle, there is no need to explain he is still speaking.

Correct:

"You have to understand." Sean clenched her wrists tighter. His eyes darkened with a menacing plea. "He was evil, I had to do it."

As with any rules in writing, there are always exceptions. However, once you've changed any of the problematic tags in your work to these more active and exciting tags, you'll find the pace of your work becomes faster and the work overall is much cleaner.

About The Author

Author of dozens of articles and award winning short stories, Jennifer Turner offers caring and concise critiques for aspiring authors without the high cost of big business editorial services at, ROTO-WRITER CRITIQUE SERVICE http://jturner.00books.com/index.html

[email protected]

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