DIY Edit: 09 Long Dialogue Tags

Even though I’m an editor for hire, I firmly believe in self-editing. Each month I’m going to drop a tip for developing your ability to edit your own work or identify things to look for as you edit. Make sure to check out all the DIY Edit Tips to improve your self-editing.


09 Long Dialogue Tags

Dialogue tags, or dialogue attributions, are meant to identify the speaker for clarity but fade into the background of the narrative. That is why the simple “Joe said” is so celebrated, because it doesn’t draw attention to itself and distract from the dialogue. Even though I’m aware of this, often—especially in first drafts—I wind up with long dialogue tags in which there are multiple actions or descriptions. Having an action or description isn’t a bad thing, but coupling several with the dialogue tag can be confusing and distracting.

To simplify dialogue tags, first you have to identify what is “too long” for a dialogue tag.

  • Winded One way I identify long tags is by reading the dialogue and dialogue tag aloud. If I get winded reading the sentence, or if I have to pause and reframe my tone (because I was expecting the sentence to end earlier), the tag is probably too long.
  • And And And Another method is to look at the construction of the dialogue attribution. Most attributions are in a similar format—”character said, [continued sentence].” If the continued sentence has an “and” in it, or if it is longer than the dialogue that precedes it, it is likely too long.
  • Run On If the topic changes—for example, the dialogue is attributed to Elsie and then the continued sentence starts talking about Mike, or about something that is happening elsewhere—it is probably a run-on sentence. Remember, the dialogue attribution is still a sentence—it’s actually part of the sentence of the dialogue—and it needs to follow the basic rules of sentence construction.

Editing long dialogue tags is often as simple as inserting a period after the attribution and starting a new sentence. Sometimes the information in the sentence needs to be evaluated because it is extraneous or irrelevant (ah, the enthusiasm of the first draft). In any case, careful review of dialogue tags and keeping dialogue attribution brief can help keep the focus on the dialogue and let the attribution fade into the background where it belongs.


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