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Dialogue Part 5: Tag, You're It.

Updated: Dec 10, 2023

Let’s express one idea five ways.

1) “I’m going to the store,” said Jane.

2) “I’m going to the store, Jane said.

3) Jane said, “I’m going to the store.”

4) I need to go to the store, Jane thought.

5) I need to go to the store.

All of these items are about the idea that Jane needs to express to the reader a need to go to the store. Most of them are dialogue, but as we have said before, dialogue is often for the purpose of conveying meaning to the reader, so for today’s thought process I want to include thought bubbles too.

Which of the above items are right?

I am aware of several prominent online writing lecturers who say that 1) is unequivocally wrong. “He said. She said. Jane said. Never use, ‘said Jane.’” I understand where they are coming from. But, are they right?

Let’s go to the jury of history. AKA. Well loved, very influential books.

Examples from Larry Niven, Three Books of Known Space:

“That’s Funny,” said Kzanol/Greenburg. “I almost remembered something but then it slipped away.”

“All ships,” said the man in the lead ship. “I say we shoot now….”

Seems like score one for 1)… but wait. In the same book a hundred pages later you will note:

I said, “It’s really love, then.”

Anton said, “He’s right, Love. Jack, give me your door codes….”

That’s a score for option 3). In the same book. Surely in the same book an author would be consistent, right? Apparently, this isn’t so.

Tyranny of the Night

I recently reread The Tyranny of the Night, Book One of the Instrumentalities of the Night. I was on page 70 or 80 before I even noticed that the structure is always structure 3. Very consistently.

Gardens of the Moon

Examples from Steven Erikson’s Gardens of The Moon:

“Oh,” Rake said, “one last thing. You’ve done well, exceptionally well. You’ve earned a rest…”

I scanned through the book and found no examples of other structures used for direct dialogue tags.

Seems like a hefty few million words though the series of scores for option 2.

So, which of them are right? All of them are right. They are all legendary writers. They are all using a different rule. They are all right. You have to decide what is right for you, know why you are doing it, how it sounds to a reader and then stick with your own rule. None of them are grammatically wrong.

It is a longer conversation about how often or how many dialogue tags you need. More is usually worse, but when they are present, they can take any form you wish.

What about the nearby elements of thought?

Is option 4) or option 5) right? I have even seen option 6, (not mentioned above) where we see “I need to go to the store,” Jane thought. While I would say 6) is getting near to absolute wrong, the 4) and 5) are also equally right. Returning to an example from Gardens of The Moon:

(not quoted to not confuse even though this is a quote from the book)

To Whiskeyjack’s mind Hedge and Fiddler were terrible soldiers. He had trouble recalling the last time they’d unsheathed their short swords. Whatever discipline had been part of their basic training had disintegrated through the years in the field. Still, when it came to sabotage they had no equals.

This is clearly a series of thoughts by Whiskeyjack. It doesn’t use the word thought, though ‘To Whiskeyjack’s mind,” is close enough. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with this structure. In the same book, skip ahead fifty pages and you find: (Again quote skipped this is entirely form the book verbatim.)

Oponn had been unkind… What had Rake meant? Have any of these thoughts been my own? Look at me – my every move seems a desperate search for someone to blame, always someone else. I’ve made being a tool of a god an excuse…

In the same book he later choses to express thoughts directly in italics. Same author, same books, score for option 5).

Do we all see the theme here? There is no strict right in this question. There is your preference, your editor’s preference, and your readers preference. So long as you know what you are doing, and why, in this case you really can’t go wrong.

Now go write some dialogue!

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Anna Varlese
Anna Varlese
Dec 06, 2023
Rated 5 out of 5 stars.

I'm partial to no tags, but whatever gets the point across works for me. :)

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