Behind “The Process”: Proper Placement of Dialogue Tags

Yo!

It’s been a minute. I truly hope everyone is doing well. The world’s been a crazy place since the last time I did a Behind “The Process” post, and while these posts don’t add much to the national conversation, maybe it’ll help you voice your own feelings, directly or indirectly, about what’s going on. Whether you write fiction or non-fiction, you don’t want your writing to look stiff. So here’s a few quick tips about dialogue tags to spice up your writing. (And if you like this one, I have another post about varying sentence structure to strengthen your writing.)

Another good way to spice that word stew is by changing where you put your dialogue tags. You know—she said, he said, and so on. One spoken sentence can look, and sound, different based on where the tag goes. I’ll show you what I’m talking about. Ready?

Photo by Paolo Nicolello

OK. Here’s something Evan, one of the characters in my book, said (minus a dialogue tag):

“It’s got the barricade still, but it’s locked. Someone toss me the keys!”

With this I could go a few different directions:

Evan said: “It’s got the barricade still, but it’s locked. Someone toss me the keys!”

“It’s got the barricade still!” Evan said. “But it’s locked. Someone toss me the keys!”

“It’s got the barricade still, but it’s locked.” Evan said. “Someone toss me the keys!”

“It’s got the barricade still, but it’s locked. Someone toss me the keys!” Evan said.

I ultimately went with:

“It’s got the barricade still!” Evan said. “But it’s locked. Someone toss me the keys!”

Why Did I put the Tag in the Middle?

This scene happened after some intense action. The kid were looking to interrogate one of the time travelers in the back of an old cop car they found at a used car dealer. I wanted the character to run back and immediately share the news that the car was set up the way they’d hoped, so “It’s got the barricade still!” Evan said, works the best here. It not only puts the most useful and awaited information first, but separates it from new/additional stuff. Evan said, or any tag, becomes a pivot point between we-wanted-this-or-that and OK-now-this-is-happening. If you want something someone says early to have a little bit more impact, set it apart from the rest of the sentence/paragraph with a cleverly placed tag in the middle.

When Do I Put Tags at the Beginning?

Fortunately for me (I didn’t look very long or hard for examples, haha) right after this question, I used a tag at the beginning for the next line of dialogue:

Roughly four seconds into his search, Dylan said: “None of the keys are labeled. How the hell is anyone supposed to find anything? Ugh. So stupid.”

I think, in general, a tag at the beginning goes best in places where the words spoken aren’t always expected. Or to introduce something. Or to give credit to someone when using their words, for example: A wise woman once told me, “Dialogue tags are way underrated, homie.” And really, you can put them at the beginning any time you want, so long as it makes it flow better. What’s flow? When you say it out loud and it just feels like you said it the most efficient and pleasing-sounding way possible. Mmm…

When Do Tags Go at the End?

Every. Other. Time. The end is kind of the default.

“Really?” he asked.

“Really,” she confirmed.

“No way,” he said.

“Yes way,” she said.

“This is the dumbest conversation ever,” he said.

You’re the dumbest conversation ever,” she said.

“Sick burn.”

Most tags will probably be at the end. You really can’t go wrong with simple he/she/they said at the end of a sentence. Keep it simple when you’re not sure, spice as needed.

Take care!

-CT

Christopher Tallon writes, podcasts, and…wait a second. Are you actually reading this? High five!

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