Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Dialogue Tags and Attribution, When is enough?

Author Beth Vogt has graciously allowed me to use a rough draft of a scene from her work-in-progress. The novel is a romantic comedy called Wish You Were Here and has great dialogue.

Setting: Best friends lingerie shopping at the mall in a Victoria’s Secret store.

The door to Meghan’s dressing room swung open
. “Pajama check. Yes or no?”

“I vote yes,” Allison replied.

“Me too.” The door clicked shut. “How are the men in your life?”

“Daniel e-mailed me to say he’d be in town this weekend and that he’d touch base about a sleigh ride.”

“Nice of him.”

“Seth called a couple of times.”

“You don’t say.”

“No big deal. He just wanted to say ‘hi’. I’m keeping it casual.”


“You don’t believe me?”

“I believe you want to keep it casual. Seth—I’m not so sure.” Meghan said, moving around the dressing room. “No peeking, just tell me: flowers or basic purple?”


“You love to spend my money.”

“I just want to make sure you feel better.”

“I do have nail polish that exactly matches this purple set.”

“That settles it then. Can we get dinner?”

“I’ve got a few more options here. So, back to Seth. Why are you talking to him?”

Allison leaned back against the wall. “You sound like my aunt.”

“Thanks, I think. What did you tell her?”


“Very mature.”

“Aren’t I being mature, Meggie?” She stood and paced in front of the dressing room. “Things ended badly between Seth and me—I ended them badly. Wouldn’t it be better if we could be friends?”


Did you have trouble keeping track of who was speaking? I sure did. Allison and Meghan were slamming dialogue back and forth like tennis players at Wimbledon.

Let’s get some quick housekeeping out of the way. Here are a couple of definitions, which you may find helpful.

Using the word “said” or any of its synonyms to identify which character is speaking. Example: Meghan said. Or Allison replied.

--Dialogue tags: Identifying which character is speaking by using a verb or stating an action. Example: Allison leaned back against the wall.

--Both attribution and tags serve the same function:
to identify the speaker of a line of dialogue.

In her second draft of the previous scene, Vogt added more tags to keep the speaker’s identity straight.

When I write, I clearly see my characters and hear them speak as if I were watching the movie of their lives. When I begin to write, I capture their dialogue first, then add tags and attribution. The trick is remembering to add them before the reader gets tripped up.

Writers need to remember the reader is at a disadvantage. She isn’t watching the movie playing inside your head. Outside distractions may steal some of her concentration. Don't make her work so that she has to stop reading, then go back and painstakingly count lines to discover who's speaking. She may decide your book is not worth the effort.

My personal goal is to attribute every four lines. Occasionally, I’ll stretch it to five lines—making it an odd number—to give a sense of movement to the other character. Of course, this doesn't have to be your rule. Just make your writing a joy to read, not a chore.

What are your experiences with writing dialogue? Do you forget to add tags and attribution during early drafts in your effort to get the words on paper?

~Roxanne Sherwood

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