How to Use Attribution Tags When Writing Dialog

Posted February 25, 2011 | Laura Christianson

Yesterday, I challenged you to figure out what’s wrong with the way an author used attribution tags in her novel.

Now, let’s talk about where you should put attribution tags (said so-and-so) and how to punctuate them. (Note: this information comes in handy when you’re writing blog posts that tell a story or re-create a conversation.)

Short quotes:

  • Place the attribution tag at the end, so your reader pays attention to the quote itself.
    • “I’m feeling confident about how to punctuate direct quotes,” Sheila said.

Longer quotes:

  • Put the attribution at the first natural pause, or at the end of the first sentence, so the reader knows who’s talking.
    • “I went to the mall to buy my dad a gift,” she said, “but I got a flat tire on the way.”
    • “I went to the mall to buy my dad a gift, but I got a flat tire on the way,” she said.

Notice how the attribution tags in both of the above examples are set off by commas:

  • …gift,” she said, “but…
  • …on the way,” she said.

And where is the comma at the end of the quotation located?

  • INSIDE the quotation marks!

How to structure an attribution tag

  • In most cases, place the speaker’s name first, followed by the attribution word:
    • Sheila said
      NOT said Sheila
  • When using a pronoun to refer to the speaker, always place the tag after the pronoun:
    • He said
      NOT said he (unless you’re trying to sound stuffy and Victorian)

Which tag to use

Said.

Need I say more? Said (or says) is invisible.

It’s simple.

It carries no emotional connotations.

It forces the writer to show emotions, through descriptive language, as opposed to telling via the attribution tag.

Examples:

  • Wrong: “I hate punctuation rules!” Laura sighed.
  • Right: Laura tossed the The Chicago Manual of Style into the recycling bin. “I hate punctuation rules,” she said.

P.S. “I would never toss my The Chicago Manual of Style,” Laura said. “That book cost me $34.65 on Amazon.”

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13 responses to “How to Use Attribution Tags When Writing Dialog”

  1. Juli Monroe says:

    Don’t forget “asked” as an attribution tag. It’s also invisible, but works when someone is asking a question. Otherwise, I completely agree. And I think I need to go back through and look at tags in the book I’m writing. I think I’ve used a few other tags, so thanks for the reminder.

  2. Juli Monroe says:

    Don’t forget “asked” as an attribution tag. It’s also invisible, but works when someone is asking a question. Otherwise, I completely agree. And I think I need to go back through and look at tags in the book I’m writing. I think I’ve used a few other tags, so thanks for the reminder.

  3. Dalas says:

    said I, “Like this?” 🙂

  4. Dalas says:

    said I, “Like this?” 🙂

  5. I love people who have a great sense of humor on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.!

  6. I love people who have a great sense of humor on Friday afternoon at 5 p.m.!

  7. Good point about “asked,” Juli. Like “said,” it is relatively invisible.

  8. Good point about “asked,” Juli. Like “said,” it is relatively invisible.

  9. Bethany says:

    I often see the comma placed outside the quotation marks…and it drives me batty!

  10. Bethany says:

    I often see the comma placed outside the quotation marks…and it drives me batty!

  11. Peter says:

    Excellent explanation of proper attribution. Thanks!

  12. William Forster says:

    I’m writing a story about WW2 fighter pilots. I’m trying to use dialog and deep POV to recreate the confusion and isolation of not knowing where your other pilots are and what is their condition. Since conversation is among two or three people, I need the readers to feel the staccato nature of communicating only by radio. Is there a way to write this without attribution tags? I understand how to do this with two people, but not with three. I originally thought of using first-person in some scenes, but I feel I’m too inexperienced to pull that off.

    Thank you!

  13. This can be tricky with three people communicating “stacatto.” You can probably get away without attribution tags for the first two speakers (for the first couple of back-and-forth exchanges), but when the third speaker chimes in, you’ll want to include a gesture or something that clearly identifies participant #3. After writing your scene, I suggest having some beta readers review it and give you feedback on whether they can easily identify the speaker without getting pulled out of the story.

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