Among the well-meaning advice I thoroughly disagree with, new writers are often told to never use a dialogue tag other than “said” and “asked.” The most quoted example used to support this comes from JK Rowling’s Harry Potter series:
“Snape!” ejaculated Slughorn, who looked the most shaken, pale and sweating.
Technically, yes, ejaculated is a synonym for blurting out or yelling something…but for many, it looks like an unfortunate mash-up of an excessively enthusiastic thesaurus and an insufficiently dirty mind. Going to the other extreme, however, ignores the fact that “said” doesn’t always do enough heavy lifting in the scene.
What’s a Dialogue Tag?
A dialogue tag tells you who’s speaking, and can offer some non-verbal cues as to how they’re saying what they’re saying. 90% of the time, “said” is going to be sufficient, along with “asked” for spoken questions.
“You’ll never get me to talk,” George said.
In this example, the tag is telling us who is speaking, which reduces confusion when there are multiple people in the room. For most readers, the “said” fade into the background while reading, making it an unobtrusive option that focuses on the actual dialogue and action. Occasionally, you can use the dialogue tag to convey strong emotion, or make it more clear that there’s non-verbal emotional cues happening that aren’t conveyed easily with description or the dialogue itself.
“You’ll never get me to talk,” George growled.
The use of “growled” (or shouted, or hissed, or screamed) does a little more work. It’s more obtrusive, which is why it should be used sparingly. It’s a little more atmospheric and evocative, which is why you don’t need to avoid it altogether. Chances are, if you flip through the nearest bestselling novel, you’ll find at least a few of these.
A dialogue tag before the text has a comma after the tag, and before the first quotation mark. The end of the dialogue itself is punctuated as a normal sentence. The first word of the actual dialogue is capitalized.
George said, “You’ll never get me to talk.”
A dialogue tag after the text has a comma at the end of the dialogue, followed by quotation mark and uncapitalized tag.
“You’ll never get me to talk,” he said.
But sometimes you want to use an exclamation point (sparingly) in the dialogue, or a question mark to ask a question. In this case, you treat the other punctuation as a comma, and keep the lower-case tag.
“You’ll never get me to talk!” he said.
“Do you really think you’ll get me to talk?” he asked.
You can also split up a dialogue with the tag. In this case, punctuation depends on whether the tag interrupts a sentence.
“You’ll never get me to talk,” he said. “They trained me for this.”
In this case, the first part of the dialogue is a complete sentence, and so the tag ends the sentence with a period. The next (tagless) piece of dialogue is on the same line, and so the reader understands that the same speaker is continuing. As the beginning of a new sentence, the first word of the second piece is capitalized.
“Do you really think,” he asked with a slow grin, “that you’re going to get me to talk?”
This should be used sparingly, as the tag breaks the line of dialogue and becomes more obtrusive and distracting. It can also serve as a dramatic pause, though, and comes down to a stylistic choice. The important thing is that because the first piece of dialogue is not a complete sentence, the tag ends with a comma, and the sentence continues in the next set of quotation marks.
An action beat is an action or thought that can give clarity to a dialogue tag, but cannot be substituted for one.
George growled, “You’ll never get me to talk.”
This is a dialogue tag. It means that George is saying the line of dialogue in a deep, growly voice.
George growled. “You’ll never get me to talk.”
This is an action beat. It means that George makes a growly noise, then says the line. It’s an action he takes before the dialogue, not as part of it. However, since it is on the same line, it effectively tells us who’s speaking, without an additional “he said” at the end.
Action beats give invaluable context surrounding a piece of dialogue, and allows us to avoid using too many flowery and distracting dialogue tags. They also help break up the dialogue so that it looks less like a script and more like a scene playing out in our heads. Almost nobody just has a verbal conversation. There’s always movement, non-verbal cues, small sounds, tone of voice, etc. that puts what’s being said in context. Action beats let us show this.
Laugh Your Words?
Words like laughed, smiled, and sobbed are often appropriated as dialogue tags, but whether it is a correct use is hotly debated.
“Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk,” he laughed.
On the side against the use of these “said-bookisms” is the argument that you don’t laugh your words (or smile them or sob them). These are things going on around the words, and are more appropriate to an action beat.
“Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk,” he said, laughing.
George laughed. “Tickle me all you want! You’ll never get me to talk.”
The argument adds that as a dialogue tag, words like “laughed” and “smiled” are telling, while as action beats, they are showing. The latter gives us a more immersive look into the scene and the character’s head.
On the side for their use, they’re a good way to convey the non-verbals in a compact way, and some argue for them as a purely stylistic choice.
The TL:DR version? Dialogue tags tell you who is speaking and how. Action beats tell you what’s going on around the actual speech, adding atmosphere and context for the words!