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  • Melanie Kirk


What is a Dialogue Tag?


A dialogue tag is a short phrase used to denote when a character is speaking, for example “he said”/“she whispered”/“he shouted”.


They can take place before, during or after direct speech:


  • She said, “Now that you mention it, he was acting a little odd.”

  • “Now that you mention it,” she said, “he was acting a little odd.”

  • “Now that you mention it, he was acting a little odd,” she said.


Where you place your dialogue tag is purely a style choice. However, long chunks of speech often benefit from being broken up, especially when it isn’t immediately clear who the speaker is at the beginning of the monologue (for instance, if there are more than two characters talking in a scene). However, make sure your dialogue tag is placed somewhere it would be natural for the character to pause or take a breath.


‘Said’ is your friend


A lot of beginner writers go out of their way to avoid using plain old said:


“Do you see it?” Timothy asked.

“See what?” Delilah sputtered. "I don't see anything."

“There!” he gestured. “Up in the tree.”


Said gets a bad rap – and it’s totally unearned.


Most of the time your dialogue tags will be invisible to the reader anyway, as most readers tend to skim them. Think of them as signposts – a signal to the reader as to who is speaking. Getting hung up on creative ways to avoid said is a waste of time at best and, at worst, can be distracting to readers and make your characters come across as caricatures.


You want the actual speech to be doing most of the heavy lifting in your fictional conversations, not the dialogue tags. In other words, the dialogue should be more interesting than the tag.


Restricting yourself to simple tags such as “said”/“asked”/“whispered” will focus your creative brain and force you to write stronger dialogue. (Show don’t tell!)


Make sure that your tags are ‘speaking’ verbs and not action verbs. Notice the last line in the example above (“There!” he gestured. “Up in the tree.”). It's not appropriate here; you can gesture at the same time as speaking, but you can’t gesture the speech itself.


Watch out for adverbs


Adverbs can be useful additions to dialogue tags, and can sometimes add extra information, for example they can tell a reader about the tone in which the character is speaking. Often, however, they are used unnecessarily, and removing them can be a way to tighten up your writing.


“Ugh, I’m starving,” he said miserably. “Shall we go to the pizza place around the corner?”

“No way!” she said stridently. “I hate that place. Last time they put anchovies on my pizza when I specifically told them not to.”


In the above examples, the adverbs miserably and stridently are redundant, since there are enough clues in the dialogue itself, in terms of content and punctuation, to tell us this.


Quash the urge to state the obvious


Don’t use “threatened” when it’s already clear a character is making a threat. Don’t use “begged when it’s obvious a character is beseeching another for mercy:


“Say that one more time and I swear you won’t be sitting down for a whole week,” she threatened.

“Please,” he begged. “You don’t have to do this. I swear I didn’t mean to eat the last of the custard creams!”


The above tags don’t add any additional, useful information, and cutting out them out (or replacing with said) will make for a smoother experience for the reader.

Actions sometimes speak louder than words

A great way to switch it up is to have your characters do something in place of dialogue tags. Using a short action beat (Bill leaned back on the sofa/Ben lifted his tumbler to his lips/Sandra sighed) in place of he said/she said can add variety and interest, while still acting as a signal that the following dialogue belongs to the character doing the action. Just like tags, they can go at the beginning, in the middle, or at the end of speech.


They can also be a great way to deepen characterisation by interspersing conversations with idiosyncratic tics – does a character have a habit of scratching his nose? Picking at her nails?


“Ugh, I’m starving,” he said, rubbing his stomach. “Shall we go to the pizza place around the corner?”

She shook her head. “No way! I hate that place." Her face screwed up in disgust. "Last time they put anchovies on my pizza when I specifically told them not to.”

 

Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor

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  • Melanie Kirk

What I’ve Been…

… Working on

January is always a slower month work-wise, so I’ve been taking the time to work on my professional development. I finally bit the bullet and taught myself a little about how to use Word macros (something I had been reluctant to try for months, since I found the whole thing more than a little intimidating!) It turns out the learning process wasn’t too painful, and I’ve already found some macros that I’m sure will come in very handy for future editing projects.


I’ve also joined the Editorial Freelancers Association, and have been slowly working my way through the wonderful free webinars they offer to members.

Work in February picked up, and I've worked on a fantasy romance novella and some short stories.


… Reading


2021 wasn’t the best reading year I've ever had, so this year I’m really working on upping my game. I’ve a huge backlist of Audible credits to use up, so now that the weather has improved a little I’ve been enjoying long walks in the woods whilst listening to audiobooks. One of those was Holy Island by the hugely successful indie author LJ Ross. I first became aware of this author years ago through her appearance on the Self Publishing Formula Podcast, but have never read any of her fiction until now. I've listened to a couple of her books now and I definitely can see why they are as popular as they are.


I also recently finished The Fire Child by S.K. Tremayne. I’ve read a few of his books now, and although this wasn’t my favourite, it was still highly enjoyable and right up my street; a psychological thriller set in an old manor house in rural Cornwall - wonderful! Tremayne is a fantastic writer who has a way of bringing landscapes to life – Devon and Cornwall will always be my spiritual home, and reading this book made me really nostalgic for it. I definitely think a trip is in order soon.


… Doing


I’m currently house/pet sitting in a quaint market town in Surrey, and in between looking after and playing with two lovely kitties, much of my free time has been spent exploring the nearby woods and exploring independent coffee shops. Prior to Covid, my partner and I had been full-time house sitters for three years, but the travel restrictions made it very difficult to continue with it, so we decided to put down roots instead. When the opportunity came up to do this house sit, however, we couldn’t resist. It was the house sit we were at when the pandemic first began and was cut short due to the first lockdown, so it’s lovely to be back here again.


Speaking of Covid (and I really am sick of doing so), my partner, S, and I had a brush with it a few weeks ago. With Omicron running rampant throughout the country, it was only a matter of time. S came home from work the day after my birthday with a fever and muscle aches, and after a quite brutal 24 hours it turned into a mild cold. I was luckier and only ended up with a mild sore throat and a headache for less than a day plus some nausea and a lingering muffled sensation in my ears. The ten days of isolation was the worst part - we resorted to doing laps around the garden, Captain Tom style, just to break the tedium. I'm sure the neighbours thought we were utterly bonkers.




  • Melanie Kirk

Updated: Apr 14



If you’re writing a novel or short story, it’s highly likely you’ll have included your characters’ thoughts at some point. There are lots of good reasons for doing so, including:


· To give the reader access to information that only the main character knows

· To highlight an inner conflict – is your character saying one thing but thinking another?

· To reveal character motivation

· To gain insight into a character’s mental state

· To further character development


There are many ways to showcase a character’s thoughts in fiction and there is no right or wrong style, although there are a few accepted conventions, so it ultimately comes down to author’s choice.


There is, however, one method which I – and most other editors – would counsel against, and that is:


Quotation marks


This is by far the least popular method, since it can easily lead to reader confusion, but it’s useful to mention it here anyway just so you can be aware of the pitfalls.


Consider the following example:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. ‘Am I going mad?’ she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she thought.


Anyone reading the above passage would assume the thought ‘Am I going mad’ and ‘Get a hold of yourself’ were spoken aloud until they got to the thought tag afterwards. The problem gets even worse when you start using tags other than ‘thought’:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. ‘Am I going mad?’ she wondered.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


‘Get a hold of yourself,’ she thought.


In this version, it’s even less clear that the first thought is internal rather than spoken aloud.


The ambiguity of this method also means that you have to include thought tags for every single thought your character has, which, if a character is prone to introspection, will get old very quickly.

Since there’s so much room for ambiguity using this method, as an editor, I’d always counsel an author to steer well clear of it.

Now, we’ve covered what not to do, let’s go into what to do.


Simple thought tags


You’ve probably heard of dialogue tags (he said, she said, etc.). Thought tags are exactly the same concept, just applied to internal dialogue, and follow the same punctuation rules.


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Am I going mad? she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


Get a hold of yourself, she thought.


The benefits of this method are that it looks cleaner on the page and is easy to read. The drawbacks are that if your manuscript is written in third person and past tense (as my examples here are), then you risk potentially jarring the reader with a sudden switch in tense and POV. It’s not a reason never to use this style, just something to be mindful of.


Italics


By far the most popular method for indicating speech is to use italics. Consider the following example:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Am I going mad? she thought.


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


Get a hold of yourself.


The benefits of this style are that it is unambiguous; no reader is going to think Sheila spoke those words out loud, since the italics themselves are a signal of internal dialogue that readers will be well familiar with.


It’s a method that works particularly well for short thoughts. You may want to be a little cautious of using this approach for longer internal monologues, since prolonged italicised passages can be a strain on the eye for some readers.


To tag or not to tag?


Whether you want to include a thought tag alongside italics is a judgment call and will depend on the situation. One of the benefits of the italics approach is that they often render thought tags unnecessary.


Too many thought tags can clutter the page and may drag the reader out of the story, but there are plenty of reasons you might want to include a tag even with italics: for flow reasons, for instance, or to break up long italicised passages that might be tiring to the eye.


Free Indirect Style


First, let’s distinguish between direct and indirect thoughts.


Direct thoughts are presented exactly as they run through the character’s head. Often they will be in present tense, but not always, for example, “I’m so hungry”, “I wonder how much longer he’s going to be?”, “What the hell was that creepy noise?” All of the examples given so far in this post have been examples of direct thoughts.


In contrast, indirect thoughts are thoughts which contain all the content of the pure thought, but which have been blended into the narration, so that the writing flows seamlessly between action and internal dialogue.


If you were using a free indirect style, therefore, the above example could look something like:


A shadow-like shape appeared on the wall. Sheila turned, but there was no one there. Was she going mad?


‘Hello?’ she said in a shaky voice. There was no answer.


She needed to get a hold of herself.


Here, Sheila’s direct thought (Am I going mad?) has been translated (notice the change in tense and viewpoint) and embedded into the narration. There is no tag needed or italics to tell the reader Sheila is thinking, instead Sheila’s thoughts have become part of the narration itself.


This method results in a cleaner style that avoids potentially jarring italics or thought tags, and keeps the thought in the same tense as the main text.


Takeaways


Now you’re aware of the different methods for rendering thoughts, don’t feel as though you have to choose one style and stick to it for the whole of your book. In fact, you’ll probably want to use different styles for different parts of your story.


For instance, in a high stakes fight-to-the-death action scene where holding the reader’s attention is the main goal, inserting a block of italicised text would likely be jarring and pull the reader out of the story, where a free indirect style would help to retain the pace and urgency. In contrast, italics may work better for a gentler, contemplative scene.


 

Melanie Kirk is a line editor, copyeditor and proofreader and an Intermediate Member of the Chartered Institute of Editing and Proofreading (CIEP). If you are interested in her editing services, you can get in touch with her at www.melaniekirkeditor.com or connect with her on Twitter @MelanieJEditor

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