A tag can comprise as few as two words. He said is a tag. So is she screamed. So is they chorused.
Now, some folks will tell you to never, EVER use any word other than said as a tag. They’re entitled to their opinion, of course. I happen not to share it. A well-placed he muttered, especially in books aimed at younger readers, says far more than he said. My opinion is that tags work better for less-practiced readers, and that “tagless” dialogue is a method better used with adult audiences who are (one hopes) more sophisticated, more used to extracting information from the dialogue itself. A middle-grade reader might be able to do that, sure. But one can’t count on all middle-graders to be that advanced. The reverse is also true: Not all adult readers are well versed in gleaning information from surrounding text, and indeed might prefer to be explicitly told how someone is saying something.
There are no rules, and the guidelines are awfully flexible. You’ll need to feel your way through and find your own best answers.
What follows here, then, is mostly my personal philosophy about tags and beats. Of course there are a few guidelines that aren’t mine, such as “don’t use a tag after every line of dialogue.” That’s what some would call common sense. Cluttering up the page with he said and she replied (OH MY GOD SHE DIDN’T USE SAID! Shaddup, you) is stealing thunder from your dialogue and insulting to the reader. You don’t need a beat after every line, either. Use them when you need them. Use them instead of tags to help the reader see and hear your characters. Let’s explore this a bit.
“Hello, Charlie,” she said.
There. That’s a line of dialogue with a tag. (Tags are also called “attributions.” They attribute dialogue to a specific speaker.) As I discussed yesterday, the dialogue is enclosed in double quotation marks, and there’s a comma before the closing quote. Her statement would normally end with a period, but it’s dialogue so it ends with a comma; the period at the end, after said, is the terminal punctuation for the entire sentence.
If you’re really good at dialogue, you might be able to write an entire section (not necessarily a chapter, but a good-sized chunk of text) without using a single tag or beat. I’ve seen it done. Not often, mind you, but I’ve seen it. That comes with practice and not a little talent. I don’t recommend it for beginners.
Now consider this:
“Hello, Charlie,” she whispered.
That’s different from said. I can hear the difference in the words because the tag indicates to me that she’s whispering, not merely speaking. Beats can do this, too, but I don’t want to discuss those just yet. There’s more you need to know about tags.
Tags can appear at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of dialogue. So far I’ve shown them at the end.
She said, “Hello, Charlie.”
Place a comma after the verb in the attribution, and enclose the dialogue in quotes like normal using appropriate terminal punctuation placed inside the closing quotation marks.
“What I want to know,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “is how you got out without help.”
There it’s in the middle, interrupting the direct speech. The first clause is punctuated with a comma, because there’s more coming after the attribution. The attribution itself is punctuated with a comma (after cup in this case) because there’s more speech coming; the sentence isn’t done, yet. In this example she’s making a statement, so the terminal punctuation is a period before the closing quotation marks.
“But Karen, why isn’t it a question mark? She’s asking a question, right?” Wrong.
She says she wants to know how he got out. She’s stating that. She’s not asking. If she were asking, she might say the following (take note of the change in punctuation):
“So tell me, Charlie,” she said as she picked up her coffee cup, “how did you get out without help?”
Now she’s asking a question. The attribution still interrupts her speech, so the first part ends with a comma (after “Charlie”), and we still use a comma after cup because there’s more speech coming, but now the sentence ends with a question mark just as it would if it wasn’t speech. It’s a question. Put a question mark before the closing quotation marks.
There are other ways of punctuating interrupted speech, but I’m saving those for the next part of this series. Right now I want to stick with the basics of commas and quotation marks.
If you have too many tags, you can swap some of them out for beats. A beat is, simply put, an action performed by the speaker. It might help us hear how the speaker says the dialogue. It might provide us with some additional information about the speaker’s mental state. It might just tell us what the speaker’s doing while talking.
“What I want to know, Charlie, is how you got out without help.” She took an elaborately etched vintage Zippo from her Coach clutch, opened it with a flick of her wrist, and lit an unfiltered Camel. “How about you tell me that, okay?”
I don’t know about you, but I think that gal means business. And she either has money or knows what resale shops carry high-end leather goods.
“How I got . . . well . . . actually, I did have help.” Charlie was studying her so closely he nearly missed the table with his tumbler. His right foot tap-danced against the table leg.
Nervous fellow, isn’t he? I could have used a tag like Charlie said nervously, but this is much more useful to the reader.
Tags, or attributions, are (usually) two or three-word clauses that tell us who spoke. She said. Charlie replied. They cheered. Tags are fine, but beware of using too many of them. If there are only two speakers, you don’t need a tag after every line of dialogue. Each change of speaker begins on a new line; let that guide the reader, rather than explicitly stating he said and she said (or whatever words are appropriate, of course).
Beats are actions performed by the speaker. The gal up there a few paragraphs smokes unfiltered Camels and owns a pretty pricey handbag, as we see from the beat. Charlie’s the proverbial long-tailed cat in a room full of rocking chairs as he’s talking with her, nearly missing the table when he sets his glass down. Those actions, those beats, help the reader form a more complete mental image.
In the next part of this series I’ll talk in depth about interrupted dialogue and the ways you can choose to punctuate it. I’ll show you how to use em dashes to insert beats. Additionally, I’ll cover single-speaker dialogue that spans paragraphs. (That’s not really interrupted, but it’s confusing for a lot of people.) It’ll be fun. Promise.