For today’s Editing 101 post, we’d like to take a few minutes to talk to you about dialog and dialog tags. Dialog is a necessity, but did you know that not all lines of dialog need a tag? Do you know all of the dialog tag rules? Don’t worry if you don’t. That’s what your editor is here for. But, we’re going to try to distill some of the information out there on the internet into a few, easy to follow rules.

Rule 1: Not all dialog needs a tag.

But, how will my readers know who’s talking if I don’t put in a tag? Easy. Use context and actions. Consider the following example.

“Hi there,” Sally said.

“Hi, yourself,” Joe replied.

“What’s going on? Is Laura coming over?” Sally asked.

Joe said, “No, she’s babysitting her little brother. We’re on our own.”

There’s nothing technically wrong with that example. It’s grammatically correct. But it’s kind of dry and boring. How about this for an edit?

“Hi, Joe,” Sally said.

“Hi, yourself.” His blue eyes sparkled, the corners of his lips turning up automatically in greeting.

“What’s going on? Is Laura coming over?”

Joe shook his head. “No, she’s babysitting her little brother. We’re on our own.”

That example does everything the first example did, but more. It painted a picture of Joe, giving us some context for who he is and what he looks like. It uses action (the head shake), and eliminates the constant tagging. When two people are in a scene, you can generally get away with using a dialog tag every four to six lines. If you’re using these action tags (the head shake), you can get away with even more lines of dialog between tags.

Rule 2: Commas, periods, question marks, and quotes.

We see this all the time.

“Hi, Joe.” Sally said.

“Hi, yourself.” He replied.

When you’re ending a sentence of dialog with a period, you don’t. Yes, that sounds a little odd. But it’s true. If the line that your character utters ends in a period, or would if it was untagged, then do two things: you change the period to a comma, and if the dialog tag doesn’t start with a proper name, you use a lowercase letter as the first word of the tag. So that example above becomes this.

“Hi, Joe,” Sally said.

“Hi, yourself,” he replied.

So what do you do if the line of dialog includes a question mark or an exclamation point? Well, in the case of exclamation points, consider changing that to a period-turned-comma. Exclamation points are widely overused in dialog and should generally be saved for times when your characters are shouting something along the lines of, “We’re all going to die!” But if you are going to use either a question mark or an exclamation point, those stay.

“We’re all going to die!” she shouted.

“Are you sure?” he asked.

As you can see, the rules for turning the first letter of the actual tag into a lowercase letter still apply.

Rule 3: Stick to a couple of key tags. Dialog tags aren’t a place to break out your thesaurus.

One of the most common problems we see in manuscripts from new writers is a reliance on what are often called saidisms or bookisms. These are words like exclaimed, whispered, mused, chortled, cackled, screamed, railed, murmured…the list goes on and on and on. If there’s a word for a vocalization, we’ve probably seen it in dialog somewhere. These, we’re sorry to say, are one of the easiest ways to tell that a book was written by a new writer. You should stick primarily to said, asked, and maybe one other. Does your main character murmur? That’s fine. Make that your third tag. It’s even fine, once in a great while, to add a fourth tag. But really, no more than that. Ensure that ninety percent of your dialog tags are the plain, boring old said. In fact, you don’t even need to technically use ask or asked at the end of each question. The question mark conveys that well enough on its own. Let’s look at a few more examples.

“Do we really need to go out?” she whined.

He assented, “I don’t want to go either.”

Maybe we should rent a movie instead,” she mused. “Did you see Silver Linings Playbook?” she asked.

“Nope,” he murmured. “I haven’t.”

“Then that’s what we’ll see,” she agreed.

Again, from a technical standpoint, that’s okay. The grammar is all good, the capitalization is correct. But instead of whined, assented, mused, murmured, and agreed, consider the following revision.

“Do we really have to go out?” Emily stamped her foot and shook her head, brown curls flying in every direction.

“I don’t want to go either,” John said, shoving his hands into his pockets.

“Maybe we should rent a movie instead.” She furrowed her brow, looking off into space, her eyes unfocused for a moment. “Did you see Silver Linings Playbook?”

“Nope. I haven’t.”

A grin tugged at her lips and she nodded. “Then that’s what we’ll see.”

There’s only a single dialog tag in that whole passage. Instead of all of those other tags, we used action to convey the same thing.

Rule 4: Interrupting dialog can be an effective way to build tension

Consider this a bonus rule, because this is a bit of an advanced technique, but interrupting dialog is a great way to amp up the emotion in your story. This is more of a 200-level class, but we’ll share this as a bonus.

Here’s an example from PageCurl Publishing’s upcoming book by Patricia D. Eddy, Love and Libations.

“If your ex-boyfriend”—the doctor smiled—“escalated to drugs, he probably would have hit you again. The rain, the car . . . they saved your life.”

This is a great use of something called the em-dash. The em-dash is used to signify a pause or a break in conversation. You can use it in dialog too. It would also be appropriate in this situation to use commas. Here’s the same passage with commas.

“If your ex-boyfriend,” the doctor smiled, “escalated to drugs, he probably would have hit you again. The rain, the car . . . they saved your life.”

You use commas (or em-dashes) when the two clauses in dialog are sentence fragments that make up a complete sentence. It would have been just as correct to say the following.

“If your ex-boyfriend escalated to drugs, he probably would have hit you again. The rain, the car . . . they saved your life.” The doctor smiled.

But sometimes, you want to vary your sentence structure a bit and the em-dash and commas can help you out.