Authentic-sounding dialog is tough. But the presentation of that dialog on the page is also problematic. Common mistakes include simple punctuation, word choices, and tag strategy. Going over a few examples can help make a positive impact in your writing. We’ll start simple and move to complex.
A dialog tag is a small phrase at the beginning, middle, or end of a sentence that identifies the speaker. Punctuation is an important part of the process. The comma offsetting the tag sits inside the quotation marks that bracket the dialog:
“I really dislike elephants,” she said.
Placement of the dialog tag is important. If you have a long speech that ends with the tag, that tag is too late to matter:
“My friends all love elephants and think they’re cute. I never understood how mottled, dirty skin could be cute. I think I liked them well enough when I was young, but my uncle took me to the zoo one day, and, well…let’s just say it was a bad experience,” she said.
The great Elmore Leonard (author of “Get Shorty”) famously said, “Never use a verb other than said to carry dialogue.” I agree in principle, but I tend to use asked to tag questions because it reads better:
“What is the big attraction?” she asked.
What Leonard wants to avoid is a thesaurus full of dialog tags that remind the reader they are reading. Said and asked are neutral tags—they don’t interfere with the story because the reader’s eye slides over them. But other tags stick out, and interrupt the reader:
“Elephants are intelligent,” he lectured.
“Then why are they in the zoo?” she queried.
“That is our great shame,” he confided.
A similar problem involves dialog tags that don’t describe the speaking process, like “Hello,” he smiled. At the risk of being picky, people don’t smile words, they say them.
Portraying a conversation can become tedious if “said” anchors every line. There are several solutions to this problem. First, not every line needs a tag. In a conversation between two people, readers are quite able to keep the scorecard straight without constant tags, especially when the speakers have distinct voices:
“You like animals more than people,” she said.
“Actually, I simply adore all living things.”
“It’s a word, my dear. It has meaning.”
Add a third person into the conversation, and tags become more important. Luckily, action can be used to tag a conversation. Action tags can be as non-intrusive as the tag said if they’re used correctly:
“You are a pompous ass.” She stood, hands on hips, glaring.
“Not so. But I am empathetic to our friends in the animal kingdom.”
“Elephants are not your friend. They’d crack your head like a peanut.”
He closed his eyes and shook his head. “You are so misguided.”
Notice that the punctuation for an action tag is different. When a separate sentence depicting action replaces a dialog tag, close the actual dialog off with a period, not a comma. The difference looks like this:
“I am not,” she said
“I am not.” She turned away.
Let’s go deeper. Remember that people don’t always speak in complete sentences. They trail off. They interrupt. The ellipses and em dash depict this nicely:
“My father used to say that…” Her eyes misted over.
“Perhaps he had a reason—”
“Yes, he had a reason! He was a jerk!”
The potential for repetition still exists if you limit yourself to simple actions:
“You are quite judgmental.” She scowled.
He shrugged. “I don’t think so. You’re the one who hates elephants.”
She closed her eyes. “I don’t hate them.”
He laughed. “Be honest.”
To avoid the herky-jerk prose of “she scowled/he shrugged,” make your action tags serve a descriptive purpose. Instead of front-loading your scene-setting in a descriptive paragraph that readers skip over anyway, set the scene in the body of the dialog. Put meaningful description directly into the conversation:
“I am honest. I’ve been honest all along,” she said. She stepped back and glanced at the elephant in the pit. The elephant seemed to catch her with sad, black marbles for eyes.
He shoved his hands into his designer jeans, his lower lip jutting. “You can say you’re honest, but what does that even mean?”
She held the elephant’s gaze for a long moment. “It’s a word. It has meaning. Let me demonstrate. Right now, I like that elephant a whole lot more than I like you.”
The groundskeeper passed by, silencing them both. He seemed to be minding his own business, but as he passed her, he shoved a bag of peanuts into her hands. “For you,” he said. His voice was mottled and muddy, though she didn’t seem to mind.
Our discussion of dialog tags and action tags goes beyond the simple admonition to “stick with said.” Experiment with your current project by finding a conversation to edit. Check to see that your commas and periods are in order. Cut some tags. Refine character voices to make them distinct. Make your action tags serve the story. If you can do that, you’ll have greatly improved your writing. Good luck!