Dialogue tags separate dialogue from the narrative. It tells the reader who is speaking and the actions that take place between the descriptions. Dialogue tags can appear before, after and even in the middle of a character's dialogue. Deciding where tags are placed requires you to develop an "ear" for sounds and sentence fluidity.
Many of today's fiction uses few dialogue tags, relying on them only when necessary. In fact, it's usually best to only use them in conversations that involve more than two people. Too many will make your story sound choppy and difficult to read. Not enough and your reader will be left wondering who is having the conversation. The best way to learn how to properly use them is by reading stories by other writers. At first it may be difficult, but over time you'll eventually get the idea.
When it comes to placing dialogue tags, there are no official rules, although many export authors and English teachers will swear otherwise. The fact is, where you place them all depends on how natural it sounds in your story. One way to tell if your dialogue tags sound natural or not is to read your sentences out loud. Take this example used in Joyce and Jim Lavene's book, The Everything Guide to Writing a Novel:
He said, "Everyone must leave. Go out the back door."
"Everyone must leave," he said. "Go out the back door."
"Everyone must leave. Go out the back door," he said.
They all sound excellent when they are stand-alone, so try to read them in context with the surrounding paragraphs. Don't try to use the same placement all the time either. Mix it up. When it comes to placement, diversity is vital.
One final tip when it comes to writing dialogue tags in your fiction story is to stick with the essential tag said. Other attributes are only rarely needed. Readers eyes are already automatically trained to understand and process the word said regardless of the context. It's there just to remind the reader who is speaking. Anything else just doesn't make any sense:
"This is terrible," he frowned.
You can't frown a dialogue. That simply won't work. Editors will throw a tantrum. English teachers will frown. Try this instead:
"This is terrible," he said with a frown.
When it comes to tags, don't be colorful. Stick with the word said and it will keep your readers immersed in the conversation and focused on your carefully plotted story.
Action tags describe the action and help mark which character is speaking. These tags are more common in fiction than dialogue tags. They are more descriptive; convey emotion and most readers prefer action to narrative. Similar to dialogue tags though, they can be used before, in the middle or after the speech. They create and sustain pace to the story and keep the reader engaged without worrying about which character is performing the actions. This is also an excellent way to add subtext in your story.
Using the example from above, action attributives would change it this way:
He rushed into the room. "Everyone must leave. Go out the back door."
"Everyone must leave." He pointed toward the end of the room. "Go out the back door."
"Everyone must leave. Go out the back door." He opened the door and ushered them out."
You'll notice that none of these examples use dialogue tags. When writing stories, action is better and therefore you wouldn't need to use dialogue tags. In fact, using dialogue tags and action tags would become quite redundant unless there are more than two people in the conversation. Don't get too creative when it comes to tagging your action/dialogue. Save the creative efforts to plot your story and develop your characters.
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