Words with Ino #1 – Dialogue tags (Part 1)

My, my.  Something new?  Something not a serial writing project?

So, basically, among other things I spend a lot of time looking over the projects of other writers within the WritingPrompts community, particularly new writers, and offering feedback and critique where I can.  Over the course of this, there are patterns that I’ve noted, and topics which keep coming up time and time again.

It’s been pointed out that some of these things might be useful to put down where other people can find, and where I can share those thoughts a little more directly.  So, we’re going to give this a try and see how it goes!

Which brings us to Words with Ino.  Over the next few weeks and months, I’m going to be going over some of the most common issues that I see with fiction projects I’ve proofread/edited, and some of the questions that I’m frequently asked.  I’ll also occasionally cover more top-level questions about the writing process itself, and the methods that goes into writing a project either long or short.

Please do note that while I’ve 100% seen experienced writers doing these things and having these questions, I’m really aiming this at more of the beginner/amateur/hobbyist level of skill, as that’s mostly who I spend the majority of my time with.  So, depending on how comfortable you are with writing, you might be beyond this already!

At any point, if you have a topic that you find interesting or would like to see talked about, feel free to send me that!  It might already be on my list (which got surprisingly long, when I actually looked at the stuff I talk about with people), but it might also be something I hadn’t thought of!

I’m also going to use these as an opportunity to just have general news and announcements that maybe don’t merit their own post, but which folks not on the discord might like the chance like to hear about.

The discord.  Yes. We (Me, Hydra, Static, XcessiveSwag, ShadowYugi, PotatowithaKnife, and Zuberan, collectively) have a discord, if you hadn’t heard.  With people, who talk, and fun stuff happening. Come say hi 🙂

News like the fact that we now have proper maps for the Flameweaver Saga!  Yay!

Anyway!  Enough chatter.  Let’s begin 🙂

Words with Ino #1 – The Dialogue Tag (Part 1)

Dialogue tags.  Super fucking exciting, I know.  This is by far the most common issue that I see with fiction pieces, though, and it isn’t limited to new writers.  I’ve seen folks who have been writing for months/years get this wrong. I myself didn’t figure out how to do this properly until halfway through Nightsworn, which gave me ~250k words to edit and correct every. Single. Tag.

So – they’re small!  But they can be a big pain if you do them wrong.  Do yourself a favor and get in the habit of doing them right now.

In short, generally, when you write dialogue, you’ve got the line of dialogue and you’ve got the tag identifying it.  Often times, I’ll see the following –

“You’re a goddamn moron.” He said.

Now, logically, this makes total sense.  You’ve got two sentences, you’ve got punctuation for two sentences, and you’ve got capitalization for two sentences.  Perfect!




When you’ve got a line of dialogue, it isn’t two sentences.  It’s all one phrase, really. After all, “he said” is not an independent sentence.  So, you treat the dialogue and its tag as one sentence, just offset with quotation marks.

“You’re a goddamn moron,” he said.

This same pattern can be applied to any punctuation, including question marks and exclamation marks.

“You’re a goddamn moron!” he cried.

“I’m a goddamn moron?” he said.

Note that you still don’t capitalize the pronoun – because it’s still not a ‘new sentence’ – and you don’t add a comma after the exclamation point.  You pick one piece of punctuation, and go with it.

There are other cases, though!  Yay! More rules and bullshit!

What do you do if you don’t want to tack the tag on at the end?  What if you want to break up the dialogue a little?

Well, you can do that.

There are really two main cases that affect how this is going to be handled, and both look at the line of dialogue.  Is the line of dialogue one sentence being split in half, or two sentences with the tag shoved in the middle?

If the dialogue is two sentences, independently split by the tag, then you punctuate it as two separate ‘phrases’.

“I don’t know what to tell you,” he said.  “You’re a goddamn moron.”

Note that you don’t need a dialogue tag after the second line of dialogue – and in fact, you shouldn’t double-dip.  Every time you switch speakers, you must begin a new paragraph.  This is a hard and fast rule.  As such, if you don’t change to a new paragraph, the reader will know that the speaker hasn’t changed.  And having needless dialogue tags isn’t a good thing 🙂

The second case, then – with one single line of dialogue split into two by the tag – would be something like this.

“If you really think that,” he said, “then you’re a goddamn moron.”

The differences – you would change the period after ‘said’ to a comma, since it’s one sentence, and you don’t capitalize the ‘then’.  It’s all one phrase!

Now.  The second half of this little conversation.  This is all fine and dandy, Ino, you say. But what counts as a dialogue tag?  Where does this rule apply, and where does it not?

This is the other really common thing that I see.  After people are given this information, they tend to swing way too far in the other direction, and over-apply this rule.  This only comes into play if there is truly a dialogue tag!

But what does that mean?

Honestly, part of this is going to dip into a different topic for a different day.  I don’t really want to get into what you should use for a dialogue tag, right now.  There’s a ton of baggage to unload there, and we’ll cover that in part 2, down the road.  Right now, let’s just talk about what could potentially count as a dialogue tag.

Put simply, a dialogue tag could be anything which would describe the character in question making a verbal sound.

Dialogue tag yes: Said, called, cried, whispered, muttered, murmured, etc.

Dialogue tag no: Turned, frowned, smiled, shrugged, literally anything that doesn’t have a vocalization as part of it.

For example, one thing that I’ve seen a lot is structuring it like this –

“You’re a goddamn moron,” he scowled.

This is wrong.  Do not do this.  I will come smack you if you do this.



When you have that comma inside the quotes, it’s the cue for the reader that the word that follows is going to be a descriptor for how that character is talking.  When you scowl, you’re not talking.  So it creates a disconnect for the reader, where they’re expecting something and then being given another thing entirely.  Disconnects are bad.

I’ll carry this out a step farther.  Let’s say that you just want to put a line of body language after a line of dialogue.

“You’re a goddamn moron.”  He scowled.

Is this a dialogue tag?  No, and it’s not structured as one.  But even still – right now, as this is written, it looks like the writer intended it to be a tag, and mis-punctuated it.  It looks like a mistake, in other words, and that’s as bad as being a mistake.

In cases like that, I would recommend one of two things.  First, you could move the body language to the front of the dialogue, in which case it would function as the tag and remove the need for one –

He scowled.  “You’re a goddamn moron.”

Or, you could lengthen the body language phrase, and make it more obvious that it’s more of an independent sentence than a tag.

“You’re a goddamn moron.”  He scowled, turning away and crossing his arms.

I personally think option number one is better than option number two, but both are options.

But Ino, you say.  There are other words, aren’t there?  Words like sighed, or growled, or snarled.  These are vocalizations too, aren’t they? Those are fine, right?

And the answer to that is….kind of?  In general, the rule that gets taught is that a dialogue tag should be word explicitly used for human dialogue.  A way in which we talk, in other words.

By that more strict rule, words like said, called, and whispered would be fine, since they’re explicitly used for people talking.  But then, words like ‘sigh’ wouldn’t be acceptable dialogue tags, since when you sigh you’re not talking.

I tend to be of the opinion that within moderation, it’s okay.  Every now and again, I’ll use something like –

“You’re a goddamn moron,” she sighed.

But, even if you’re open to the idea of it, it’s best if you don’t do it too frequently.  Something you’ll hear me say a lot is that you should know the rules well enough that you know when you can break them.  When you’re writing fiction, generally, you’re fine as long as you can get away with something. In many cases, how something sounds and how it flows in the reader’s mind is more important than if it’s strictly grammatically correct.

You all asleep yet?  Good. Glad to hear it.



This is part 1 of dialogue tags!  Made it! It’s not thrilling stuff, but it really does make an impact on how your project looks 🙂  If you think of a different case and you’re not sure what the proper way to handle it is, let me know!  I’m by no means saying this is an all-inclusive guide, of course.

And if you have other topics you have trouble with or want to talk about, let me know!  I’ve got a little list made, but I’m happy to add onto it.

Until then, happy writing!

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