What is a dialogue tag?
It’s any part of a paragraph that explains who is doing the talking. This can be as simple as ‘she said’. It can also be an action dialogue tag, wherein the character who’s speaking does something, usually a short sentence, just before, during or after speaking.
The best way to demonstrate this is by example. Below is a simple segment of fiction with the dialogue tags in bold.
“It’s going to be a long night,” she said. She picked up the kaleidoscope and fiddled with it, turning the cell without looking through the viewer.
“Don’t break that,” cautioned Marcus.
When you use dialogue tags more subtly, to change it up, you could put in an action tag instead. Here’s an example of that. All the dialogue tags are in bold.
“What’s in the box?” Anne turned the package over in her hands.
“Tea bags,” he said.
“Why would you order tea bags online?”
He frowned and grabbed the box from her. “I like a certain kind of tea, okay?”
In the section above, there are two action dialogue tags and one ordinary dialogue tag. In addition, there’s a line of dialogue that isn’t tagged at all, but because there are only two people in this scene, and they’re speaking in turn, you know who said it, because it’s on its own paragraph.
Below is a slightly more complicated example.
Sharon and Roger both leaned over to look out the train window. Roger was very much aware of her shoulder, just under his chin, as they eyed the passing, icy landscape. Her hair tickled his nose. She half-turned her head to glance at him. “How long before we arrive?”
“At least an hour.”
Now, in the above paragraph, both Sharon and Roger have actions, and it’s actually from Roger’s point of view. However, because Sharon half-turning her head is the last thing that happens before the spoken word, it’s clear that Sharon is the one who spoke.
These examples should explain what dialogue tags are. Next week, we’ll talk about how to make best use of them, so that your readers always know who said what, yet the story flows smoothly and simply.