Writing Dialogue, Part One: Dialogue Tag Placement

Dialogue is a huge driving force in fiction writing. It helps with character development, giving each person a unique voice, and is an easy way to “show, not tell.” In Part One of a four-part series, I discuss the placement of dialogue tags, or the statements of who is speaking. It may not sound like something important, but in fact it is actually crucial.

Writers developing their stories always know who is speaking, but do the readers? Consider this example:

“I apologize. I was distracted. Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long,” John said a little stiffly.

Not only do we not know who is speaking until the end of the five-sentence paragraph, but also how it was spoken. As we read, we may not have had the character speak with a stiff tone, but rather a sincere once. Or maybe we read it as if a completely different character was speaking. Some readers might then be inclined to reread the paragraph in the “correct” way.

Let’s revise this to make it clearer:

“I apologize. I was distracted,” John said a little stiffly. “Yes, the birthday party did turn out well. It was fortunate so many were able to attend. It is gratifying to see them after so long.”

Now we know the who and the how of this piece of dialogue right away. The rest of the lines after the tag read smoother, and readers can focus on the character’s voice and how it relates to the story.

Another scenario in which the placement of the dialogue tag is imperative is when more than two people are speaking. With just two characters conversing it is easy to alternate the lines without tags and the reader can follow without a problem. Throw in more people and you’ll get something like the following example where four characters are talking:

“Look up,” said Kit.

“Look up?”

“Scorpions will cling to walls and ceilings and drop down on you suddenly,” Nance said.

“Ooh. That’s bad.”  Sophie was shivering with dread.

“Relax. Enjoy the ride. See how the trees are covered with golden blossoms. They’ll blanket everything with their blossoms and pollen for a month.”

“Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

“It’s everywhere in the Territory.  Part of the region’s charm, really.”

By context of the previous paragraphs not shown here, the second line is known to be spoken by Sophie, so no tag is needed there. We can also correctly deduce that the fifth line is spoken by Nance. However, we cannot easily figure out who is addressing Ben. The tone of the sentence doesn’t quite fit the frightened Sophie, and Nance just spoke the line before. So, is it Kit? Did Sophie say it to change the subject? We need a tag to know for sure.

After I queried the author, he chose to add a very simple tag that prevents the story from falling off the tracks:

Kit said, “Ben, did you know that gold ore is present on this land?”

When writing dialogue, consider the reader’s ability to follow along. If there is any doubt of who might be speaking, find a way to make it clear.

In Part Two of this series, I’ll talk more about dialogue tags and how to keep them simple, yet strong.

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