Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags

Hey everyone! I've been a member of this community for actually about a year now (new account, I wanted a new username to tie my own project to) and I've been writing and critiquing for almost 4 years now. Always as a hobby, I am by no means a professional.

One of the biggest complaints I have as someone who does critiques, especially for new writers, is nowhere near enough narration. I usually see people diagnosing the issue by offering up synonyms for the word "said" in their dialogue tags. I see it on all the time and in other writing communities. This is diagnosing and treating a symptom of the problem, not the actual problem itself, which is a lack of variety in the types of tags being used. I think this is because a lot of new writers don't know how to use the other dialogue tags, or when they should be used.

A lot of new writers only use the Standard Dialogue Tag (He/She/They/Name said/exclaimed/asked/muttered...). This tag is fine if the words matter more than the thoughts or actions of the characters. You've got to convey information to your reader (or the other characters) and this is how you do it.

But there are instances where the emotions, thoughts, and actions of your characters matter just as much (or more so) than the words they are speaking. And trust me "yelled" just doesn't cut it as a tag. Has someone told you that your writing does too much telling and not enough showing? Well buckle your seatbelts folks, because I am about to teach you how to show through dialogue tagging!

Narrative Dialogue Tags

So first up is the Narrative Tag. This is a fairly simple tag. You use it to connect exposition to the words your character is saying. Particularly information that would be awkward for a character to tell another. For example, if you have two level 100 raid-seasoned MMO veterans, they should all know what kiting, player killing, aggro, and other MMO terms mean. Your reader might not know if they are new to litRPG/MMOs in general, this is where you put that information.

Quote:“The devs said it’s to fix the economy,” Ashley replied. Isaac made it to the section of the patch notes she was referring to. Changes in weapon durability and the rarity of crafting materials were other changes being made. All designed to get players to earn—and especially spend—more money, both real and ingame.

Ashley continued. “Opening a blacksmith’s shop and putting your subclass to good use could earn you a good amount of gold.”

In this example, the blue is the narrative tag. You can see that I also used standard dialogue tags both before the green and at the end of the green. The POV character in this story is Isaac, but Ashley is speaking. Rather than have Ashley speak all that information out to the reader, it's being passed along in narration. Both characters have access to the patch notes and both would be reading it. This keeps the actual spoken portion of the dialogue neat.

As the writer, it's your job to balance the "economy of knowledge". You have to keep track of what each of your characters know, what you know, and what your readers know. Sometimes all 3 groups have very different information.

Here's another example:

Quote:“I’m here on official Army business,” [Tyree] stammered. How had she killed scores of goblins, faced down bloodthirsty drakes, and raised twin daughters, yet this man had managed to break her in an instant? “I’m looking for Sergeant Shai.”

Again, you can see that I am using a standard dialogue tag with the narrative tag. In this instance, you could actually drop it, but I kept it because I am "showing" the dialogue tag with the bit in green. Tyree is typically calm and collected, and has a history of a life of action she has had to keep calm in, yet whoever she is talking to seems to have gone above that history and made even her flustered for once.

Action Dialogue Tags

Next is is the action dialogue tag. Much like the Narrative tags, these are used where an action is important to the scene. This is where you would describe the emotions your character is feeling through their actions. Or, just give more characterization to your cast by giving them unique actions.

Quote:“You wish your hammer would get that kind of action,” Nix fired back. “Seriously, if the NPCs look like that, imagine what the players look like! We had the character creator!” Nix paused as though he were considering something, then added, “Now that we can gain XP again, you might want to consider stat dumping into Charisma for your next couple levels.”

“Fuck you, Nix. Charisma isn’t even an option in this game.”

“I guess there’s no hope for you.” Nix looked stricken for a moment, then shrugged and went back to his food.

In this example, Nix and Saiph are having a back and forth. You can see that again, I used a mix of action and standard dialogue tags. The actions serve to give Nix more characterization.

Quote:Nix, meanwhile, propped himself against a tree and took on a bored expression. Saiph had given his friend a look but the Summoner just shrugged. “Bumbling into monsters is the tank’s job. I’ll move when it’s time to fight.”

In this example, I use a mix of action and narrative tags (the narrative being the white portion). There is no set spot on where you have to put the dialogue. It can go before or after the tag, and like the previous example, you can even weave narration in between dialogue.

The key with action tags is you can't just have your character interacting with objects to interact with them. The action needs to flow with the scene.

Quote:“Dude, what the hell did we get ourselves into?”

“I have no idea.” Nix shook his head. “I tapped the login button and the next thing I know, we’re here. You were still out cold, so I decided to walk around. This is exactly where we fought Reynardine last week!”

“Well, not exactly,” Isaac said. “The graphics are way better.”

“But these are definitely not just pixels on our monitors.” Nix took the leather book from his waist and ran his fingers along it. “It feels like real leather. Virtual reality tech isn’t even a tenth this good and there is absolutely nothing out there that can simulate this level of detail. I think we are actually in Annwyn Online!”

“How the hell do you think that happened?”

“How should I know? Magic wasn’t real ten minutes ago!” Nix snapped, reminding Isaac of their mutual hatred for stupid questions.

“Say, is your friend’s list working?” Isaac thumbed through his own for the second time, confirming that Nix was still listed as offline.

And in this example, the pair are coming to terms with the fact that the world they are in is not a game. Nix isn't messing with his leather book to give himself something to do. His interactions with the book are a part of his dialogue.

Another important thing to consider with action tags is choreography. Picture where all the characters are in your mind as you work through the scene. If you tell us a character has sat down by the window then have them doing something by the fireplace without giving us a cue that they left their seat (or worse, you have them sit down after having just sat down), it can throw off the scene.

Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags

Thought Dialogue tags

This is basically the internal thoughts of your character as they are being quoted. Self explanatory and one of the more common tags.

Quote:“We have to go back and help mom.” And I’m doing it whether you help me or not.

Pretty self explanatory, it serves a similar purpose as to the narrative tag. You are passing along information to the reader that the other characters might not need to know, or again would be awkward and clunky if said aloud.

Be aware that a thought can itself be "dialogue".

Showing vs. Telling

As someone who has done a lot of critiques in the past, one of the critiques I hate seeing others give is "show, don't tell". This offers absolutely no help to the author as it doesn't tell them how to fix the issue.

In all of the above examples, I could pull others where I kept narration going before going to another character's response. This is basically how you "fill the white space" in your story and this is how you weave exposition into your story without coming off as "info dumping".

Coming up with synonyms for "said" is not the answer to making your story more vibrant. We as readers aren't in the writer's head. We can't discern if a "yell" is from anger, happiness, or a neutral shout to be heard. We need the context from the things going on in the scene to tell us that. And how its done is by using these other types of dialogue tags.

But remember: Standard dialogue tags also just work. Their job is to be invisible to the reader. These other tags slow down the pacing of your story by giving us more information. Sometimes that's not what you want.

Also, consider what you are trying to do with your scene. You'll notice in some of my examples, I use no dialogue tags. In the context of the story, it's clear who is speaking, so a tag is unnecessary as long as I keep the back and forth pattern between two characters. I highly recommend putting the dialogue tag before the dialogue of a 3rd person coming in to the conversation so the reader doesn't confuse them for the either of the original 2.

And don't forget, an action can itself be a response to dialogue. You don't necessarily need to have your character respond by speaking.

And just a bit of personal preference: It is 100% a-okay to use "asked" as a dialogue tag. But personally I hate "asked" since the question mark implies the question. Questions are good spots to use other types of tags.

And finally, things like "said sadly" are fine, but please don't be like JK Rowling and use these exclusively instead of other types of dialogue tags. They aren't a form of "showing". They have their place, and they are a tool just as much as these tags, but make sure you choose the right tool for the dialogue. Only you know which tool is the right one.

Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags

Well, the purpose of a dialogue tag is basically to inform the reader about who is speaking. Thus, "dialog tag."  Another words, anything that redirects the reader to the speaker, nominates the speaker, Makes it apparent who the speaker might be, is a dialog tag. This rarely includes exposition following what was "said" that basically is simply commentary or concordance that might go forward to expound on the viewpoint expressed or elaborate on the principles underlying some statement made during the dialog.  Exposition is exposition.

Occasionally, changes in dialoging characters might be self apparent, as when two characters are swapping blab, and  being only the two, the mechanics of one replying to the other adequately defined by the convention of Parenthesis use and changing paragraph structure, in which case further tagging is not necessary.

  Raith and Ted looked at each other dourly. Raith nodded towards Bob, who was still expounding from his bully pulpit.

   "I think Bob is a fool!"

   "I hear that. But a rich fool."

I like action tags, because they link to the speaking character's motion and can help to define the mood, attitude and state of the speaker. They do the double duty of presenting the visual story while defining who the speaker is.  Well used, it can replace adverbial saids such as He said meanly, or said brashly, such like,  and other remarks that are typically called "Tom Swifties".

 Tom's head snapped up, following the jet with a wince as it cracked the sound barrier. "Jesus. They shouldn't be doing that over the city."

Saids themselves, or applicable substitutes, are nominal and great when intruding interjections interfere with the flow of a conversation, would be cumbersome or disrupt pace.

That said, a good read usually revolves around a fair mix of active description and dialog, with exposition only used where necessary.  An unbalanced run of prose will not be solved simply by tweaking the dialog if it is too extensive, or if the work is overwhelmed with exposition. 

Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags


B.A. Wrote: Thought Dialogue tags

This is basically the internal thoughts of your character as they are being quoted. Self explanatory and one of the more common tags.

Quote:“We have to go back and help mom.” And I’m doing it whether you help me or not.

Pretty self explanatory, it serves a similar purpose as to the narrative tag. You are passing along information to the reader that the other characters might not need to know, or again would be awkward and clunky if said aloud.

Be aware that a thought can itself be "dialogue".

This reminds me of something amusing that I once read. (Probably in a book about creative writing, but I'm not sure which one. I own several.) 

The author was talking about such things as the value of having a trained copy editor examine your manuscript for redundancy. He made some interesting points about how certain genres may require special handling. Here is a loose paraphrase of what he said.

1. When examining the manuscript of a conventional novel, presumably set in something strongly resembling the real world, an eagle-eyed copy editor might look askance at such lines as:

I may have to smile and accept this for now, but just wait until my contract expires next month, Shelly thought to herself. 

The objection would that be that "thought to herself" seems redundant. You can easily strike out the last two words without altering the meaning of the sentence in any significant way. After all, to whom else would Shelly be addressing a silent thought?  Even if other people are in the room with her at this very moment, as part of a lengthy conversational scene, they aren't going to know what Shelly is thinking but not vocalizing, are they?

2. But in a SF/F work in which widespread telepathy might be part of the local culture, the author may have very good reasons for feeling that italicized thoughts sometimes need to be accompanied by such tags as "thought to herself," to make it crystal-clear to the reader that this is not one of the thought-messages which Shelly often "transmits" via telepathy to other characters with whom she wishes to commune silently, without being overheard by everyone else within earshot. No, this particular thought is strictly private, as opposed to what it would have meant if the author had typed, "Shelly thought to Tyrell," or "Shelly thought to each of the other members of the Council of Ten." 

3. The person making this comment said that, in his experience, this is why some very capable and experienced copy editors, who are well-accustomed to examining murder mysteries or romances or historical fiction or whatever, choose to make it a hard-and-fast rule to never accept assignments that will involve proofreading anything so "unrealistic" as a story set in a medieval fantasy culture, or on an alien planet, or anything along those lines, because so many of the "rules of thumb" which those copy editors have drilled into their own minds for gauging what makes sense grammatically, and what doesn't, and what is comprehensible but is also wasting words by restating the obvious, suddenly are no longer valid when the plot is dealing with time travel, telepathy, deities with "cosmic awareness" appearing onstage as viewpoint characters, and other "unconventional" situations.

P.S. As an afterthought, I just wanted to ask about your use of the term "thought dialogue tags." I don't think I've run across that one before. My general understanding is that a "speech tag," in the context of writing fiction, refers to bits of prose which tell us who is saying something. ("Hank shouted" or "the priest explained" or "she muttered" or whatever.) In the example I provided above, I would call the phrase "Shelly thought to herself" a "tag," although I probably wouldn't call it a "speech tag" because she wasn't speaking aloud. But you seem to be saying that even if this had been the entire paragraph --

I may have to smile and accept this for now, but just wait until my contract expires next month.

-- then that line would qualify as a "thought dialogue tag," by your definition? I can go along with the "thought dialogue" part, but it doesn't look like a "tag" to me if it doesn't "label" (i.e. "tag") the person thinking those words. So I'm curious: Did you invent the term "thought dialogue tag" for your own use, or did you learn it from some other source? (Such as a book or website that offers tips for creative writing?) If you picked up the term from somewhere else, can you point me to the source so I can study what they have to say about it? 

Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags


Lorendiac Wrote: So I'm curious: Did you invent the term "thought dialogue tag" for your own use, or did you learn it from some other source? (Such as a book or website that offers tips for creative writing?) If you picked up the term from somewhere else, can you point me to the source so I can study what they have to say about it?

I more came up with it myself. A "thought dialogue tag" is just the character's thoughts accompanying their words. The example I used explaining it on reddit is something like this:

Quote:"And what of Sera in Yorck? Is she well?" She wasn't in Yorck, she were in Knox. If the man claiming to be a friend of Acton's answered wrong, Cline would remove his head right then and there.

"I believe you are mistaken, Sera is staying with Ava in Knox." The man reached into a pocket inside his coat and pulled out a small flask. "I think we could both use a drink now."

"So I was." It's good to know Acton still associates with smart men. "We can take this inside. Out of the cold."

In this example, I go narrative tag, action tag, thought tag between the 3 dialogue examples (and I actually "coined" the term "thought tag" in this thread)

Your example would not be an example of a dialogue tag since no dialogue accompanies it. I generally consider the "thought tag" as a subset of the narrative tag.

The example you used seems to presume the end of whatever conversation had preceded it. In which case, this is more narration/internal monologue than part of a dialogue between 2 (or more) characters. If the exchange does continue, again, I would consider it more an internal monologue/narration than a proper dialogue tag.

Again, I am no expert, I write as a hobby. These are merely my interpretations of how other authors tend to write out their dialogue and this is my attempt to explain it in a way that I find makes the most sense. As I've done in my examples above, you can use combinations of types of tags with the same quote.

Ultimately, these examples are all just narration weaved in between the conversation happening. A lot of writers I've critiqued over the the last couple of years lack the ability to do this, and I believe that this is a core reason as to why some people might feel their dialogue sucks or their story is lacking in "something" without knowing what that something is. Often it's just a lack of narration.

Re: B.A. Tucker's Comprehensive Guide to Dialogue Tags


luda305 Wrote: As a suggested revision to your original posts, the headings for each subsection are indistinct. I would either add horizontal lines to break up, or format (bold underline) the headings.

Funnily enough, in the editor, they actually are larger in font size and more distinct. The fact that they aren't showing up that way when I hit submit means it's an RR issue, not something I can fix. I'll submit a ticket about it, but unfortunately there isn't much I can do in that regard.

Valery Wrote: You've done a lot of work and research.
The Standard Dialogue Tag appears in every book...
The narrative tag is a real skill and art worth learning. I've rarely thought about tags in such a context. But this is really very important. Thank you!

Thank you! Yeah, I'm very analytical and I prefer to think of things in groupings to explain concepts. I don't have any formal training in English or Creative Writing, this is just the organization of someone who studied biochemistry and other sciency topics before taking their first foray into writing—and seeing issues with other novice writers having trouble with dialogue.