Who Said What: Dialogue Tags and Properly Punctuating Them

Dialogue tags play a vital rule in fiction. They provide clarity to readers about who is speaking. Of course, not every quote requires a dialogue tag, but it should be a rule of thumb that where there is the potential for confusion, a tag should be placed.

So what is a dialogue tag? They are words that we take often for granted as readers. Words like said, says, hissed, shouted, blurted, barked, joked, screamed and many, many more that either proceed or follow a noun. Different tags relay different information in regards to how a character says a certain line. However, writers should be weary about breaking out the thesaurus and trying to fit as many into a writing project as possible, because it comes off as amateurish.

You see readers have progressed to barely registering the word “said.” It just cues them into who is speaking, but the word itself is barely a blimp on their radar. If you throw in a ton of other dialogue tags that are not said (like whispered), you are giving the reader little stumbling blocks. And if you overuse those dialogue tags, your readers are going to start laughing — just look at the “Twilight,” “Eragon” or “Fifty Shades” fandoms where some fans have really heckled the writers’ overuse of  certain dialogue tags.

Now that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use alternative dialogue tags; it just means use them sparsely and with purpose. Now you might say, but I really need to use this one tag to convey fully what it is going on in this scene. That may be the case — and if it is, more power to you — but it might also be that you are taking the easy way out and relying on showing rather than telling. You need to trust your readers. If you give them enough cues through your characters’ actions and words, they will get. If you’re character is slamming the door before addressing a character they have been arguing with, your readers will assume through those actions and what is being said that your character is shouting without having to be told “she shouted.”

People who love to read can often imagine the emotion behind pieces of dialogue, you need to trust them and give them all the proper cues to do just that.

Punctuation Makes A Difference

Now that we’ve determined what dialogue tags are, it is time to tackle punctuation.

For direct dialogue, it should look like below with a comma separating the dialogue tag from the quote. Please note: Punctuation always goes within the quotation mark:

  • “Get a grip,” Bob said.
  • Sally screamed, “Forget the rations! Run!”
  • “One way or another,” Greg said, “you are going to pay.”
  • Margaret said that people are slow and “given to making mistakes.” (Note that no comma appears before the quote)

Now what happens if you end up with dialogue that ends with a exclamation mark or a question mark? It’s pretty much the same as above only you have to watch whatever program you are using to prevent automatic capitalization if the word that follows the dialogue is not a proper noun:

  • “Come down!” the nanny called to her charge.
  • “Where did you come from?” he said.

There are also some instances where a writer can use a colon to introduce dialogue. Often this is at the writer’s prerogative since it is highly stylized choice. Some instances where I would personally use a colon (to provide both separation and emphasis) are below:

  • Even running, blood pumping in my ears, I hear him: “Jump!”
  • What did Miss Eleanor always say. Ah, I remember: “Mind your own business or you might find others’ heaped on your plate.”

Another possible situation you might face as a writer is a quote within a quote, such as:

  • Molly placed her hands on her hips. “But in his letter he said, ‘there is a passage in the red book that talks of “man’s general disdain for smalltalk,” though I no longer remember the page.’ I am certain his recollections are accurate.”

The first quote within the dialogue receives single marks while the quote within it receives double quotation markers. If the quote within the quote ends the dialogue, you will have a situation where you place a single mark before a double quote mark.

For running quotations, it really depends on the publishing company. I have seen some use single marks at the end of each dialogue paragraph leading up to the last  paragraph, which then ends with a double quotation mark. Others — it’s like this for AP and I think the majority of the publishing industry — use no quotations marks at the end of dialogue paragraphs before the final paragraph of the running dialogue. Since I see more of the latter, I would recommend using it.

That is the gist of dialogue punctuation, though I suggest opening up a book that you’ve read before and solely looking at how the author handles their dialogue tags. Additionally, I leave you with three additional tips below:

Tip No. 1: “Smiled” is not a dialogue tag
This is what I imagine talking through your teeth as you smile looks like: psychotic. (Photo from Psycho Pass)
This is what I imagine talking through your teeth as you smile looks like:  just plain psychotic. (Photo from Psycho Pass)

Feel the urge to plop down smile as a dialogue tag? Slap yourself. I saw this done for the first time this year (then it began to appear everywhere) and was blown away. Seriously, how is “smiled” modifying the dialogue? Well, I suppose it could make it creepy, just imagine someone talking through their teeth to you as they maintain a wide smile (see the photo to the right). Also try doing it yourself. Isn’t it hard to show those pearly whites while talking without moving your lips?

The same goes with sighed and a vast majority of other verbs people insist on turning into dialogue tags when they are actually actions that should be separate from dialogue. In general, remember to keep your dialogue separated from dialogue using proper punctuation like below:

  • She ran toward the explosion. “Terri!”
  • “You don’t say!” He slapped her on the back. “I knew you were a smart one!”
  • “You look good.” He shot her a grin.
No. 2: Avoid redundancies

“I’m sorry,” he apologized.

“He apologized” is extremely redundant. Of course, we can tell that he is apologizing from the dialogue! Why do we have to be told this? In fact rather than utilizing a dialogue tag, especially if confusion is not an issue, how about putting in some action? It could up the ante and provide some real emotional impact to the scene. Watch out for other similar redundancies.

In a similar situation, adding a “shout” or “scream” tag to a piece of dialogue that ends with an exclamation mark can also get old. After all, an exclamation mark suggests a character has raised his/her voice. As for “asked,” you might be wondering: It is much like “said,” where the reader largely skims over it. However, if you have a piece of dialogue that ends with a question mark and there would be no resulting confusion, you can completely forget about “he/she asked.”

No. 3 (And perhaps the biggest): Separate your characters!

Each character’s dialogue must receive its own paragraph, no matter how small the paragraph might be. This is vital for writers to do, because it stems off all manner of confusion for the reader. This also means separating out other characters’ reactions to what is being said; however, there are alternatives. Like for instance: “If there is one price to be paid by the defendant–” I find myself cut off by the murmurings of court observers. I raise my voice: “There is but one price! And that is death.”

There are many other avenues as well. Don’t feel like you can’t play around with dialogue tags!


Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

6 thoughts on “Who Said What: Dialogue Tags and Properly Punctuating Them

    1. Thanks! Having struggled with dialogue tags in the past, I felt the need to share what I’ve learned, especially when I see others struggle with them.

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