Tag, You’re It!

A fun game, but we’re not referring to it, we’re talking about the dialogue tag (and related punctuation).

Given what I’ve seen in my editing travels, dialogue writing seems to prove a bit tricky.  Because it never hurts to review—or learn something new—let’s look at a few examples.

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“Why would I do that” he simpered.

“I’m not the killer!” And she pointed. “Marcus De Teuer is!”

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night” He pointed out.

“It’s not like he …”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

“It’s Welland,” which was the intern’s real name.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat queried.

“Frank, it could be that the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple is the murder weapon,” Ronald wondered.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Jenny trailed off.

Which ones are correct?

Right, none.  😊  Now, some might claim literary license, and that’s fine.  But they’re still wrong.

Let’s consider what we can do to correct them, without going into eye-glazing grammar explanations (you can always google the “rules” and check out the various grammar manuals).

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

Dialogue tags are usually punctuated with a comma—unless the dialogue (speech) is interrupted.  Other punctuation would include the question mark, full stop, and explanation mark.  Ellipsis can be used to express a pause, a trailing off of thought.  But the comma is the more common.

“You’re a loser.” She said.

“You’re a loser,” she said.   /   She said, “You’re a loser.”

“That’s not the murder weapon.” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“That’s not the murder weapon,” Detective Leo said with a shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

If we use an exclamation point or question mark for this example, we might want to change the verb “said” to reflect the punctuation.

“That’s not the murder weapon!” Detective Leo exclaimed with a fervent shake of his pumpkin-sized head.

“That’s not the murder weapon?” Detective Leo asked, confused, shaking his pumpkin-sized head.

The example for this one has no punctuation.  Given it’s a question, the ol’ question mark would be perfect.

“Why would I do that” he simpered.

“Why would I do that?” he simpered.

When dialogue is interrupted by an action or a thought, use em dashes to set off that interruption (don’t use commas).

“I’m not the killer!” And she pointed. “Marcus De Teuer is!”

“I’m not the killer”—she pointed—“Marcus De Teuer is!” 

Maybe we could add this:

“I’m not the killer”—she pointed an accusing finger dramatically—“Marcus De Teuer is!” 

Use a comma or rearrange this one.

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night” He pointed out.

“Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night,” he pointed out.   /   He pointed out that Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night.   /   He pointed out, “Mrs. Ladrona wasn’t in town that night.”

Never use ellipses for interruptions.  They’re used, as noted earlier, for pauses, trailing thoughts, a character not certain what to say next.  Use em dashes.

“It’s not like he …”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

“It’s not like he—”

“Don’t be silly,” Jenkins interrupted the officer.

A bit awkward.  Who’s speaking?

“It’s Welland,” which was the intern’s real name.

Make sure information/facts are logically arranged (and not haphazardly tacked onto dialogue).

“It’s Welland,” the intern stated. “That’s my real name.”   /   The intern’s real name was Welland.   /   “It’s Welland,” the doctor told the detective.  “That’s the intern’s real name.”

The comma is fine here.  The verb, not so much.  Is it a question?  Did Pat query something?  No, Pat made a comment, stated a fact.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat queried.

“We normally check for fingerprints,” Pat informed them.

If a character is wondering something, like good ol’ Ronald here, then he is asking himself a question or has a desire to know something.  It’s a silent action.  You talk to someone, suggest an idea, put forth a theory; you don’t wonder at someone.

“Frank, it could be that the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple is the murder weapon,” Ronald wondered.

If a character is wondering about something, you might approach it this way:

Ronald wondered if the knife sticking from the bartender’s temple was the murder weapon.  Should he share this idea with Frank?

The ellipsis tells the reader the character has paused or trailed off.  No need to state the obvious.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Jenny trailed off.

But feel free to add something else of note.

“Hmm, it’s possible …” Curious, Jenny picked up the crumpled letter.

There are other components (rules) related to dialogue and dialogue tags, but these cover the more common issues to be found.

The best way to get a handle on writing dialogue is not just to read books, but to review them.  Highlight dialogue; notice the punctuation, the structure.  Apply it to your own work.  And, if you’re not sure, the internet is a wonderful source of information.  If you don’t know how to use an em dash, for example, type: when to use an em dash in dialogue.  Voila!  Bob’s your uncle.

As I said last week, if I can help even one person with my editing tips, then I’ve accomplished what I set out to do.  Educate.  😉  Maybe I’ll do some more educating next week.  It’s rather fun.

“Have an awesome week, my friends,” she said with an encouraging smile.

Author: tylerus

I'm primarily a writer of fiction and blog posts, and a sometimes editor and proofreader of books, manuals, and film/television scripts. Fact-checking and researching, organizing and coordinating are skills and joys (I enjoy playing detective and developing structure). My fiction audience: lovers of female-sleuth mysteries. My genres of preference: mysteries (needless to say), women’s fiction, informative and helpful “affirmative” non-fiction. So-o, here I am, staring up a new blog for aspiring and established e-Book writers. The plan: to share the (long) journey of getting to this stage, and share "learnings" and "teachings". There's a lot I hope to accomplish with this blog, but it may be a while before that happens as there's a lot on the ol' plate - taking care of Mom, working full-time, and attempting to get another book in the Triple Threat Investigation Agency series written (never mind blog postings and other writing projects). It's very challenging and it's all good. As I like to say: teeny focused baby steps are just as effective as long forceful strides. It may take a little longer, but we will get there.

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