2019 Novel Prize Advice and Tips: Dialogue and Tagging
Hey guys, me again.
I'm talking today about something we see so much in both polished pieces, and those needing another once over. Incorrect dialogue tagging.
There are a lot of features of writing that are, shall we say, pliable. What I mean by that is that there's more than one way to do it. For example — single versus double inverted commas for speech. Italicised or non-italicised thoughts. I could go on.
However, one thing that's not pliable, is dialogue tagging. Sorry about that. There is a right way to do it, and if you don't know what tagging is, or you're not 100% sure on whether you're doing it right, or you're 100% sure you are, and you're just here to make sure, then worry not. Grindstone has got you covered.
It's really simple once you get the hang of it, and there's really not much to learn. So, let's just jump right in, shall we?
The most basic form of dialogue tagging is the one where you say 'he said', 'she said', 'said Daniel', or anything like that. It is always preceded by a comma inside the inverted comma, even if it's the end of a sentence. And because it's a comma, not a period (full stop), then you do not capitalise what comes after. Like this:
'Dialogue tagging is simple,' said Daniel.
'I wish someone would do a blog on tagging,' Sarah said.
"I find dialogue tagging to be a pain in the arse, frankly!" he said.
"I know how you feel," she said.
(Note: You can use single or double inverted commas — that much is down to personal choice, though there is a regional standard. UK tends to be single, and US tends to be double. Though we won't be punishing you for either, and most agents/publishers won't either.)
So, what happens if you need to use some punctuation? Like if one of your characters is asking question, or they're trailing off and you're using an elipses, or they're yelling and you're using an exclamation point? Well, it's exactly the same as above. Like this:
'I hate tagging!' Daniel said.
'What do you mean?' said Sarah.
'Well, it's just so boring...' he said.
Note how there's still no capitalisation, unless it's a name, of course. We'll come to when capitalising is appropriate next.
Full Stops & Tagging
Full stops and dialogue tagging works a little differently, in that it's not technically tagging. If you see this:
'Dialogue tagging is easy.' said Daniel
Then it's wrong. If you see this:
'I told you I knew what I was doing.' Said Sarah.
That's even more wrong. Why, you ask? Because a period denotes the end of a sentence, which is comprised of constituent parts — the speech being one, and the tag being the second. So when do you use periods and speech? Now that is something that's simple. If you're not tagging, you can use a full stop. If you have an action or a description or anything that isn't a dialogue tag (he said, she said, Daniel yelled, Sarah whined) then you can use a full stop. Or, if you'd prefer, one of the other punctuation marks. Like this:
'I think I'm getting the hang of this.' Daniel grinned with hubris.
'You wish!' Sarah scoffed and shook her head.
'Why do you always have to be so mean?' He began to sulk.
'I don't know what you mean...' She lifted her chin haughtily.
Because these aren't 'tags', they don't require a comma after the speech, and they do require a full stop to denote that they are separate clauses, but related — ie. Sarah speaks then Sarah does something. If you were following the speech with something non-related, then you'd do what I'm talking about below.
But what about when you don't want to tag at all, or you want to talk about something else? Non-tagged speech is really common, and often, who's speaking, the way someone says something, or their manner can be inferred from the speech itself. Note how we can carry on the personalities of the characters above (Daniel and Sarah) through non-tagged speech.
'I think I need help with all this tagging stuff.'
'I agree that you need professional help.'
'What's that supposed to mean?'
'Nothing. You're perfect as you are.'
Non-tagged speech can be really effective in keeping pace through a scene. It's also really great to use when you've got a fast back and forth between two characters as you don't bog the reader down with 'he said' and 'she said' all the time. However, a word of caution — be careful of non-tagged speech when you have more than two characters, as it gets confusing.
'That. Who's that?'
'No, not you. Her.'
'Now there's three of us.'
'Wait, who's speaking?'
'How should I know?'
Non-tagged speech can be as much a positive as a negative, and it's very situationally volatile. It can make or break a scene, and requires a deft hand to use correctly. But, if you can convey emotion without telling the reader what the speaker is supposed to be exhibiting, then that's a really good sign!
I mentioned above about using non-tagged speech with non-related action. That would look something like this:
'Did you hear that?' Daniel asked.
There was a shuffling outside the door. Like footsteps.
'Shh.' He motioned for Sarah to be quiet.
'I don't hear anything.' Sarah held her breath.
'Maybe you would if you shut up!' Daniel hissed.
They both looked over at the door, and watched in horror as the handle began to turn...
Sometimes, we need to use non-continuous dialogue, and this is how you do it. Non-continuous dialogue is when you have a speaker say something, then you have them do something, and then they say something again. However, the uses stretch beyond this and it can be used for dramatic effect, as well as a host of other things. Here's some examples of how it looks.
'There's so much to learn,' said Daniel. 'I'll never get the hang of this.'
'What kind of attitude is that?' Sarah shook her head. 'It's all about perseverance.'
'That's easy for you to say!' he snapped. 'Everything comes easy to you.'
'Bollocks it does. I try hard.' She looked away for a moment. 'I try really hard.'
Now, there are some differing schools of thought here as to the use of commas and continued speech, as in:
'Hey, what do you say,' Daniel said, 'that we grab a pizza and sort all this out?'
But honestly, that's sort of messy, and I don't like the way it looks. Some people say it's okay, but you're best off avoiding it for the most part and in my experience, there's never an absolute necessity to use it. End your clauses with a tag, and then start a new sentence. If you can find an instance where your tag comes right in the middle of a sentence, then I'll ask you this? What are you gaining from putting it there? What's that? Someone's doing something in the middle of your speech that you need to include? Oh, well what didn't you say so. We've got just the ticket!
Em-Dashes and Movement
As an added bonus, I'm going to go over something that few dialogue tagging blogs and how-tos actually cover. It's something that's becoming more prevalent in today's writing climate, and it's something that I use a lot, as I much prefer animation to tagging in my own writing. But that's just a preference that suits what I write. Anyway, what I'm going to talk about is the use of em-dashes to intersperse non-broken dialogue with action.
What does that mean? Good question. The basic explanation is that sometimes you'll have a string of dialogue from one speaker, but they'll need to do something in the middle of it all, like this.
'Hear me when I say this—' Daniel leaned forward in his chair and pointed at Sarah '—using em-dashes allows you to put action in the middle of sentences. End of story.'
'You know, for once—' Sarah laughed a little '—you're actually right.'
Em-dashes can be used in the above format (dialogue, em-dash, inverted comma, space, action, space, inverted comma, em-dash, dialogue) with no extra punctuation, to allow a writer to put some action right in the middle of speech. Though, use this sparingly. Maybe there are one or two instances in an entire novel where I use this. Though, it's certainly a handy tool to have at your disposal.
And finally, the last thing I want to mention...
I wanted to cover everything and produce a comprehensive guide to tagging because, well, it's important, and with the novel prize deadline looming, and you guys doing your final edits, it could be the difference between making the shortlist or not. Yep, at the top, it's that cut-throat.
So, what's inverse tagging? It's what it sounds like. It's when the tag precedes the speech.
When would you use it? Well, situations don't often call for it, but when they do, it's important to do it right. And this is how it looks.
Daniel chose his words carefully. After a moment of thought, he said, 'What's the best way to inverse tag?'
Sarah rolled her eyes, said, 'There is no best way. There's the right way, and there's the wrong way.'
'Hmm.' Daniel hummed, rubbed his chin, and then replied, 'Well, I think I've finally got it licked. I'm confident now that I can tag with the best of them.'
She cast him a questioning glance, and then asked, 'Oh really? Then that means we can end this blog post here and get back to editing our novels, right?'
Daniel beamed, clapped, and then said, 'You know what? I think we can.'
Remember when you inverse tag to still use a capital letter at the beginning of dialogue, and never use a full stop! If you write: Daniel said. 'Is this right?' Then I've got news for you, it's not!
I think that about does it...
So, excusing the quality of the writing and examples, you should have everything you need above to nail your tagging for the upcoming deadline. Remember — if you're tagging, no full stops and no capitals. For everything else, feel free to refer to this, or reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org
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We can't wait to read your novel openings in a few weeks time!
Good luck, and all the best, guys.