Movement & Tags in Dialogue
Updated: Sep 7, 2020
As a writer of fiction, dialogue in your story can be incredibly powerful. It can convey emotion, characterization, and of course, move along a narrative. But there is more to writing dialogue than the words being spoken. There is space between that can help you tell your story and engage your readers.
Writing large blocks of dialogue with no breaks in between can be exhausting to the reader, and at times can even make the dialogue more difficult to follow. What I like to do to break things up is to slip in some kind of movement—it doesn’t have to always be literal movement, it could simply be a dialogue tag. But a, “He smiled,” or “She rubbed her temples in frustration,” can help to convey the mood of both the scene and the character.
Be warned, however, that this can be overdone. When reading over your scenes with dialogue, say them out loud, try and see how natural everything sounds. Have the actions you’ve added in between become jarring? Does it break up the flow of the character speaking? If it doesn’t feel right, or the information you’re adding feels unnecessary, cut it. It’s all too easy to stuff your book with filler as you’re trying to add in more description, dialogue included. Just because what’s being done or said is interesting to you doesn’t necessarily mean it’s relevant to the plot, and can only hold your story back.
Let me show you what I mean by adding movement to your dialogue. In the examples below, I’ll be using a piece of flash fiction.
In this example, no tags or action are used. The dialogue simply speaks for itself.
“Tak, you cannot simply run into that dragon’s lair. You have a duty—”
“Yeah, yeah. Save the prince, slay the dragon. I get it already—”
“You need to be careful.”
“I get it! Just let me go already, Mother.”
The em dash signifies the speaker being cut off, the italics are emphasis, or possibly sarcasm, the exclamation point a raised voice. Tags and action would have simply derailed the scene, and you get plenty of characterization here without it.
And here is where the action is embedded throughout the dialogue, giving movement and personality to this next scene.
“Captain!” Pippin picked Tak up easily and swung her around, laughing. The knight dropped her sword, but wished she’d held on tighter so she could stab the damned prince.
“What. Is. Going. On?!” she said through gritted teeth. She gasped for breath as Pippin let her go.
“I was blessed by a dragon,” he said, and he gave an extravagant bow. “But I wasn’t quite blessed with flight, and I got lost. So I’ve been living here, waiting for you to find me.” He barked with laughter and hit the knight roughly on the back, his braid falling over his shoulder in his enthusiasm.
“You gods damned idiot, Pip! You’re the dragon?”
“His last dying gift! Fire! All those lessons, useless compared to this. The nearby village has been giving the dragon here gifts for years. You should have seen their faces when I started asking for pillows and blankets.” He laughed again, that same, hearty laugh. Tak groaned and held her face. How could this man be such an idiot, and yet set to be king?
You can easily see Pippin’s playfulness and carefree nature thanks to the actions and tags used here, as well as Tak’s frustration and disbelief. I was able to insert a bit of the character’s appearance as well by mentioning Pippin’s braid—while a character’s appearance can be important, it’s not necessary to bombard the reader repeatedly with how they look, and in fact can hurt your story overall.
Let’s look at that again, but without all the action.
“What. Is. Going. On?!”
“I was blessed by a dragon, but I wasn’t quite blessed with flight, and I got lost. So I’ve been living here, waiting for you to find me.”
“You gods damned idiot, Pip! You’re the dragon?”
“His last dying gift! Fire! All those lessons, useless compared to this. The nearby village has been giving the dragon here gifts for years. You should have seen their faces when I started asking for pillows and blankets.”
Here, Pippin sounds more airheaded and less playful, and while Tak still comes off as angry and frustrated, it feels severe on a different level, and their familiarity (the hug and twirl) is completely lost. Overall, it just feels less fun!
Don’t be afraid to experiment, and if you feel stuck, you can always look at other stories for inspiration. This certainly isn’t the “only way to write dialogue”, it’s just the way that works for me. Less is more in many situations!
When it comes to dialogue tags, I often hear writers swear by only using ‘said’, or using none at all. I don’t necessarily agree—sometimes using another tag other than ‘said’ can help set the tone, the same as using movement. Although this too can be overused, and try not to use any fancy words. Simple is best when it comes to tags; they’re meant to help you.
If you have a cast of three or more people in a scene, using a tag or movement is a must, lest your reader get confused as to who is saying what! Use your best judgment as to when and where to use tags, every single line of dialogue does not warrant a tag. Everything in moderation.
Some examples that I like to use to get out of the repetitive nature of ‘said’ would be:
As you can see here, I did not list ‘laughed’ or ‘smiled’, tags I see used frequently. These are not tags, but actions, as speaking is not laughing or smiling. Although ‘laughed’ could be used depending on the context and intent of the author, so I won’t say that one is entirely incorrect. Usually writing, ‘he said with a laugh/smile’ is the best bet, but in the end it’s up to the author’s choice and intention. As usual, writing rules aren't exactly rules so much as guide lines.
“I tripped over my shoelaces this morning,” he grinned,
might sound correct when said out loud or in your head, but using the comma to denote him speaking doesn’t make sense when followed by ‘he grinned’, as again—grinning is not speaking. You can say something with a grin, though!
Instead you would write,
“I tripped over my shoelaces this morning.” He grinned.
“I tripped over my shoelaces this morning,” he said with a grin.
You could also consider using an exclamation point in the first example instead of a period to denote that he’s making fun of himself/making light of the situation even more clearly, although it’s up to you.
To better round this out, I want to touch on one final thing. I see this mistake constantly.
When do you use commas or periods during dialogue? And how should you punctuate it?
Every time you start or end a sentence with a dialogue tag, you use a comma between the dialogue and the tag. The only exception to the rule is when you end the speaking sentence in a question mark or an exclamation point, and in those examples, you would still keep the dialogue tag in lower case, unless the tag starts with the character’s name (or the tag starts at the beginning of the dialogue, of course.) By using a period instead of a comma, it makes the end of the dialogue a full stop, and turns the tag into a single sentence, which is jarring for the reader.
“I can’t believe you said that.” She said. [Incorrect!]
“I can’t believe you said that,” she said. [Correct!]
“I can’t believe you said that!” she said. [Also correct! Although in this case I would probably use a different tag, like, ‘she cried’ or ‘she yelled’. Or possibly no tag at all as the exclamation point does speak for itself, personally I think it’s up to the author.]
She said, “I can’t believe you said that.” [Also correct.]
I don’t usually like to give absolutes when it comes to writing. You’re free to break any and all rules, but personally when it comes to dialogue, I find that work comes off as unprofessional when this simple rule is broken. However, I completely understand that this can be a difficult rule for some people to wrap their head around. That’s why I encourage writers to find editors to help them polish their stories!
What’s your opinion on dialogue? Are there rules you live by, or live to break? Share some of your favorite dialogue scenes, your own or someone else’s!