Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Art of the Dialog Tag

“Listen, if you and your sorry-ass friends don’t want to come, that’s okay, but don’t sit around here being vegetables all day, okay?” said Audrey.

I’m betting you found that paragraph annoying, and here’s why: I forced you to read a lo-o-ong quote without knowing who’s talking. Lord knows why writers do this. Perhaps they’re so in love with the quote that the idea of interrupting it to identify the speaker – what we call a “dialog tag” – is just inutterably painful.

I’ve got news for them: the reader doesn’t care. The phrase “said Audrey” is so purely functional that it’s almost non-verbal. It blips into the brain like a camera-flash, and then the brain continues to what the speaker is saying. Therefore, it greatly assists the sense of the paragraph without interrupting it in the least. Try this:

“Listen, if you and your sorry-ass friends don’t want to come, that’s okay,” said Audrey. “But don’t…”

Notice that the quote is “tagged” at a logical point. Lately, however, I’ve been inserting my tags even earlier, and this quote provides an excellent opportunity to do just that:

“Listen,” said Audrey, “if you and your…”

 Instant ID! Note the comma at the end of the tag, and the use of lower case at the continuation of the quote, both allowing for maximum flow.

Not enough? You want to take it even further? All right, you maniac, how about:

Audrey gave him a deadeye stare. “Listen, if you and your…”

No dialog tag at all! Simply by describing Audrey’s action, and proceeding directly to the quote, you have identified her as the speaker. (The only caveat here, of course, is that the action should make some sort of sense.)

Tapeworm Tag

Another species of dialogic malignancy occurs when a writer weighs down a tag with an overlong modifying phrase:

“Listen, if you and your sorry-ass friends don’t want to come, that’s okay,” said Audrey, tossing her auburn hair to the side and checking her cell phone, which had just rung in with a text from her tai chi instructor, Man Poh. “But don’t…”

The crime here is breaking a trust with the reader, who will naturally expect the modifying phrase to be a brief digression which will then return quickly to the quote at hand. Your average reader has a clock in his head that allows a certain amount of time for the modifying phrase to hold his attention. It’s a highly subjective call, but I would end the above example at “tossing her auburn hair to the side.” One bit of information, and then back to the quote. If the other details are truly necessary, why not take advantage of all that space before and after the quote? As in:

Audrey tossed her auburn hair to the side. “Listen, if you and your sorry-ass friends don’t want to come… all day, okay?” She checked her cell phone, which had just…

The Power of Said

Think again of that functional blip – the brain signal that almost erases the word-ness of dialog tags and turns them, essentially, into traffic signals. This image carries a further implication: the phenomenal versatility of the word “said.” Whenever you use a word other than “said,” you’re introducing a subtle distinction that will necessarily slow that blip down.

When I think of “said,” I think of Jackie, whose apocalyptic sci-fi novel I had the pleasure of editing. Jackie operated under the theory that an author should never settle for “said,” but should use a wholly unique verb for each and every dialog tag. Her characters roared, and sang, rumbled, cracked, cajoled, whimpered and coughed, creating a veritable cacophony and wearing Jackie’s thesaurus to the spine.

This was insanity, of course, so I duly blue-penciled ninety percent of them in favor of “said.” After recovering from the shock of my barbarous slashing, she listened to my explanation and eventually became a convert to the Church of Said. Unless your dialog tag demands the force of “asserted,” the edginess of “accused” or the enthusiasm of “declared,” we invite you to join our congregation.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six published novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. Find a list of his books at

No comments: