There’s a lot of misunderstanding as to the proper usage of some words in the English language, and many mistakes even make it onto the page, especially in these days of self-publication and rushing into print. It’s very difficult to proof your own writing, as I know all too well. As a freelance editor, writer, and avid book consumer, I see a lot of these mistakes. So, each month, I highlight a few of the errors I see most often.
Prose Pointers: Dialogue Action Tags and Paragraph Breaks
Action Tags: If you put a person’s action with their dialogue, it’s called an action tag. Though you should use a mixture of attribution and action tags, I think action tags are preferable. For example:
Poor usage: Paul stared at her in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me,” he said.
Better: Paul stared at her in disbelief. “You’ve got to be kidding me.”
In the first example, the dialogue is tagged twice—once with the action (Paul stared), and again with the attribution tag (he said). You don’t need the attribution since you’ve already tagged it with the action.
Paragraph Breaks: Of course, this only works if you put the characters’ actions with their dialogue instead of in separate paragraphs. This is the accepted practice, so the reader will assume that, when you use a paragraph break, you are switching to a different character. But when you show a character performing an action, then switch to a new paragraph to give the same character’s dialogue, it becomes confusing because the reader will assume it’s a different character speaking. Example:
Lisa pushed the stroller faster through the mall, trying to ignore Bill.
“When are you going to give up?”
Since we have two people in the scene—Lisa and Bill—we don’t know who says the first line of dialogue. You could say “Lisa asked” after the question, but since we’ve changed paragraphs, the reader will assume Bill said this until they hit the tag. You could start it with the tag, but it’s not necessary. Instead, put the action tag with the question, and there’s no confusion:
Lisa pushed the stroller faster through the mall, trying to ignore Bill. “When are you going to give up?”
Even though Bill is mentioned last, it’s Lisa’s action, so we know she said it. Since Lisa and Bill are the only two in the scene, we don’t need to tag his dialogue, because it’s obvious he’s the one who said it.
A potential client recently sent me some dialogue that read something like this:
“What do you want?” George asked. “Nothing.” “Then why are you here?”
The author intended this to be two different speakers, but jumbled all the dialogue together in one paragraph so you weren’t sure who said what. Again, give each character their own paragraph and it becomes clear:
“What do you want?” George asked.
“Then why are you here?”
An exception is when you have characters speaking simultaneously. In that case, this is acceptable:
He said “Paris” just as she said “Rome.”
Multiple Tags: Multiple dialogue tags (whether action or a synonym for “said”) aren’t necessary, and they just add additional unnecessary verbiage to your manuscript. Here’s an example of what not to do. It comes from a manuscript I edited long ago (spelling and punctuation mistakes are his, not mine):
“Nothing—” Phil said, before the phone range. “Hello!” he bellowed after diving to answer it. “Yes, this is Doctor Johnson,” he added much calmer. “What did you find?”
This dialogue was tagged many times—all in the same paragraph: Phil said, he bellowed, he added, and even with his action tag of diving to answer it. It was a bit too melodramatic for what was happening, too. This is how I corrected it, since the act of diving shows his attitude:
“Nothing—” Phil broke off as the phone rang, then dove to answer it. “Hello? Yes, this is Dr. Johnson. What did you find?”
As I mentioned in an earlier column, this dialogue is also a problem because we were supposed to be in Phil’s point of view. If so, he can hear what the person on the other end of the line is saying, so the reader should “hear” it too. If we’re in someone else’s point of view who’s watching this, this passage would be fine.
Pam McCutcheon is a freelance editor, writer, and speaker who pens romantic comedy, fantasy short stories, and nonfiction books for writers under her own name, and YA urban fantasy as Parker Blue. Her books include the popular Writing the Fiction Synopsis and The Writer’s Brainstorming Kit (with Michael Waite), now available in digital form. Learn more about her at pammc.com.