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Writes and Wrongs #4: Kiai! Action Tags (#writingtips)

Characters don’t just speak, they do stuff.

Eager? Just want to skip ahead to the examples? click here.

It can be difficult for me to punctuate dialogue correctly sometimes because I don’t say to myself, “Self, a comma must follow a dialogue tag if … ”       At most, when I am typing I might do something like say the punctuation in my head:  “Luke (comma) I am your father (comma) he said (period)”.

Don’t judge.   I embrace my weirdness.

Because I “hear” commas, I am prone to screwing it up.  I might put a comma with an action tag instead of a period.  Or I create a comma splice.  Or I use a comma with a subordinating conjunction.   When I get to a point where a comma is a “style choice”, I agonize.    “Is this sentence long enough to justify the comma?  Does it sound better if I leave it out?   Maybe I should put it in.  No, it doesn’t flow right. Leave it out?   Put it in?   IT SOUNDS WRONG!”

I never have Commando Commas, but I am guilty of the Wayward Comma — a place that sounds like it should have a comma, but is actually wrong.  This happens to me frequently with Action Tags and during dialogue edits.

Woe is me!

Wait…

Woe, is me…?

Dammit.

 

speechbubbles

 


The Basics 1:  Action Tags Are Sentences — After The Dialogue

Action tags, instead of dialogue tags, are a way to add variety, pacing, –Oxford Comma!– and flavor to your characters’ conversations.   I think it is easiest to remember how to punctuate if you remember that Action Tags Are Sentences.  In the examples, watch the punctuation carefully once you remove said.

Our Lesson Line:   “No, I am your father,” he said.

First let’s add a name tag (Hah!):
“No, I am your father,” Darth Vader said.

Now, let’s add a connected action (a clause):
“No, I am your father,” Darth Vader said, staring down at Luke.

Next, let’s separate the action (a full sentence):
“No, I am your father,” Darth Vader said.  He stared down at Luke.

How about getting rid of the dialogue tag and pronoun:
“No, I am your father.” Darth Vader stared down at Luke.

In our last example, noticed how when we took away said we changed the sequence into a section of dialogue plus an action tag (a full sentence).   For this reason, the comma that was inside of the quotes must revert back to a period because the sentence inside the quotes has to stand alone.   This is a common area to end up with a commando comma due to an edit even thought it was correct when it was first written.    Staring down at Luke is a clause that can’t stand alone and requires a comma.  He stared down at Luke is a complete sentence.

“No, I am your father,” Darth Vader stared down at Luke.
X the comma in the dialogue is hanging out in the breeze without the tag said.

“No, I am your father.” Darth Vader stared down at Luke.
No dialogue tag? Tuck in that tail.

 

 

The Basics 2:   Action Tags Are Sentences — Before The Dialogue

Action, of course, can come in front of the dialogue.  Watch out for commando commas.  Sentences must end with terminating punctuation, not commas.

Our Lesson Line:   “No, I am your father,” he said.

Staring down at Luke, he said, “No, I am your father.”
Period ends the one sentence that begins with Staring.

Darth Vader stared down at Luke.  He said, “No, I am your father.”
Two sentences — Beginning with Darth and He.

Darth Vader stared down at Luke.  “No, I am your father,” he said.
Two sentences — Beginning with Darth and No.

Darth Vader stared down at Luke.  “No, I am your father.”
Two sentences — Beginning with Darth and No.

 

 

Commando Comma alert!  Be careful when you remove dialogue tags at the beginning when an action clause is attached to it.

Staring down at Luke, “No, I am your father.”
X the comma on the clause is hanging out in the breeze without the tag said.

Staring down at Luke, Darth Vader pointed to himself. “No, I am your father.”
Darth Vader stared down at Luke. “No, I am your father.”
No dialogue tag? Tuck in that tail and/or form a complete sentence.  Note that we have created two sentences:  the action and the dialogue.

 

The Basics 3:   Action Tags Are Sentences — Interrupting Dialogue

Interrupting a dialogue is an area where punctuation can run amok.  Sometimes, what you do is about as clear as Saltmarsh mud.  Sometimes, it comes down to interpretation.   Keep an eye on the action and whether you have one or two sentences.  If you interrupt with an action tag then that’s three sentences.   Are you ready for a headache!   I bet you are!

“No,” he said, “I am your father.”
(one sentence, comma after tag)

“No,” he said. “I am your father.”
(two sentences, period after tag)

“No,” he said, staring down at Luke. “I am your father.”
(two sentences, comma after tag, period after clause)

“No,” Darth Vader said, staring down at Luke. “I am your father.”
(two sentences, comma after No, comma after tag, period after clause)

“No!” Darth Vader said, staring down at Luke. “I am your father.”
 (two sentences, exclamation after No, comma after tag, period after clause.)

“No!” Darth Vader stared down at Luke. “I am your father.”
 (three sentences–starting No, Darth, I–no dialogue tag, period after action.)

“No!” Darth Vader said, staring down at Luke, “I am your father.”
X (two sentences, comma after tag, incorrect comma after the clause Luke. No is a stand alone interjection as indicated by the exclamation point and is not part of the second  bit of dialogue.

“No!” Darth Vader stared down at Luke, “I am your father.”
X (two sentences, no dialogue tag, incorrect comma after action. Should be three sentences–No, Darth, I)

“No,” Darth Vader stared down at Luke, “I am your father.”
X (two sentences, no dialogue tag, in correct comma after action. Should be three sentences–No, Darth, I)

The above, as far as I can tell, are all properly punctuated.  Be careful! The word I here is forgiving.  Let’s do some Luke dialogue and see what can happen if that first word isn’t an I or proper noun.   Pay close attention.  It makes a difference if you have a dialogue tag or not.

“No,” he said, “It isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said, “It isn’t true!”
X (one sentence, comma after tag, incorrect capitalization of It)

“No,” he said, “it isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said, “it isn’t true!”
(one sentence, comma after tag, correct capitalization of it)

“No,” he said. “it isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said. “it isn’t true!”
“No,” he said, his face twisting in despair.  “it isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said, his face twisting in despair.  “it isn’t true!”
“No!” Luke said, his face twisting in despair.  “it isn’t true!”
X (two sentences, period after tag with clause.  Incorrect capitalization of it.)

 

“No,” he said. “It isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said. “It isn’t true!”
“No,” he said, his face twisting in despair.  “It isn’t true!”
“No,” Luke said, his face twisting in despair.  “It isn’t true!”
“No!” Luke said, his face twisting in despair.  “It isn’t true!”
(two sentences, period after tag with clause.  Capitalize It.)

“No!” Luke’s face twisted in despair. “It isn’t true!”
“No.” Luke’s face twisted in despair.  “It isn’t true!”
(Three sentences, no dialogue tag, period after action.  Punctuation after No. Correct capitalization of It. Without a dialogue tag, No must stand alone as an interjection and requires an end punctuation)

“No,” Luke’s face twisted in despair. “it isn’t true!”
X (two sentences, no dialogue tag, period after action.  Incorrect comma after No. Incorrect capitalization of it. Without a dialogue tag, No must stand alone as an interjection and requires an exclamation point; it is not part of the second dialogue)

 


Ow.

Did I get them all right?   If you see something that I got wrong, let me know.    I have written things how I understand them.  If I am totally off the mark, I won’t take offense if you point out the flaw.  I’ll just fix it!

Did this lesson give you a headache as big as mine?

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5 comments on “Writes and Wrongs #4: Kiai! Action Tags (#writingtips)

  1. J.A. Stinger
    February 10, 2016

    Reblogged on http://www.jastinger.com/

    Love this!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. oxfordtutoringblog
    February 10, 2016

    Great advice here! Thank you for the post.

    Liked by 1 person

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