By D.M. Johnson
The Good, The Bad, and The Obvious
In basic terms, dialogue tags (or speech tags) are like signposts, attributing written dialogue to characters. Dialogue tags don’t need to be fancy, splashy, or self-conscious. Their primary purpose is to show which characters speak and when. The greater the number of characters involved in a scene, the more important the frequency and positioning of tags becomes.
Each tag contains at least one noun or pronoun (Carla, she, Rory and Ellen, Jets, they) and a verb indicating a way of speaking (said, asked, whispered, remarked). For example:
- Carla said
- Rory and Ellen asked
Tags may be extended into longer phrases describing action or context:
- she said and wiped the dusty shelf
- he said, looking guilty
Adding adjectives and adverbs to tags to provide specific information about the speaker or the speech—she asked warily; he said innocently. These are calledadverbial tags. Sometimes adding an adverb to a tag can be useful, a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without drawing it into a longer, descriptive sentence. As a caveat, it’s frequently suggested in writing advice columns and books that such tags be used with a careful hand; an adverb can make a tag more obvious and remind people they’re reading a story instead of experiencing it. Still, published authors use them when it fits the situation.
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