Dialogue tags: Your opinion

Generally, I haven’t given much thought to dialogue tags. Most of my conversations in my previous games have looked like this:

Ask John about his father.

“My father was a tyrant.”

But now I’m starting to reconsider. Is the dialogue better with them? Here’s the same thing above with a DT.

Ask John about his father.

“My father was a tyrant,” John says.

I’m playing around with DT in my current game and I can’t decide how I feel about them. I’ve coded them to vary slightly: “John says” “says John” and “he says” for example. I’m not varying them beyond that. There will be no “John growls” or “John laughs” which always sound silly.

It seems to me the standard way of doing things back in the Infocom days was not to use them, but…I can’t decide how I feel about them. Looking at my two examples above, I kind of like how the second one looks, but I can’t figure out why.

I thought I’d ask the community at large and get some opinions. What do you all think about using dialogue tags in parser-based IF? Are they good, bad or do they not matter?

PS As an additional bit of info, my current game is not very conversation heavy. It’s mostly a fun puzzly adventure with a few opportunities for limited conversation. I’m not sure if that matters, but I thought I’d throw it in.

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I remember when I was researching Dialog tags before for something I was writing, they had found out that people basically process “says John” or “she says” instantly and it doesn’t disrupt the reading process at all, only providing clarification. But weird tags do cause problems.

I checked by flipping through a bunch of random books open, and pretty much every major author uses simple tags every time.

I’ve made a lot of conversation-heavy games, and I often leave out dialog tags, and it’s even confused me rereading it. I’m going to try adding them in the future. But that’s just my opinion.

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Thanks for your input!

If you’re putting on a play, you want the audience to be paying attention to the actor under the spotlight, not the stage hands, so you have them dress all in gray so they fade into the background.

You can think of written english the same way.

“I don’t care!” John said. “I will go to the ball!”

In this case the spoken words are what you want the reader to focus on. The tag – John said – is part of the machinery of english, not the story world, so you want it to be bland and “background”.

This is why using funky taglines (the technical name is “said bookism”) is bad style; by using “John sneered” “John opined” and all the rest you’re directing the reader’s attention to the wrong place.

If you want to avoid the talking heads effect, then you need to promote the extra information up to the level of a body gesture. e.g.:

Sheila drew herself up. “Well, I think you’re being very silly,” she said.

When you’re writing bits of text like this, be sure to write them in chronologial order. That is:

Instinctive reflex, followed by thought, followed by conscious action. (Speech is an action.)

So:

Frederick gasped. That a peasant would address him so! “That’s outrageous!”

not:

“That’s outrageous!” Frederick gasped, insulted that a peasant would address him so.

The second one is in the wrong order because people react then speak. The reader then has to go back and “add in” the information about how Frederick is speaking then go back again and add in that he’s insulted. This small disruption of the arrow of time subtly reminds people that this isn’t real life, and consequently undermines the suspension of disbelief that you’ve worked so hard to attain.

By the way, going back to Sheila – notice the closing tag “she said.” You could leave it out, but it lets the reader know that she’s finished speaking and now either someone else is going to speak or something else is going to happen. This lowers the cognitive load on the reader, and lets them read faster and more comfortably without getting lost.

Of course, no style is absolutely to be followed at all times: go ahead and break it for effect. But it’s better to know what you’re breaking and why.

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Dialogue tags are essential if you’re writing both the player’s spoken text and the NPC’s response, or if multiple NPCs can respond to a single command. Otherwise it can be confusing to pick out who is actually speaking what (though often not impossible, from context).

When you’re only writing just the single NPC’s response, they’re less important, but I don’t think anyone would mind reading them.

So it kinda depends on the style of your story.

My preference is not to use them except when necessary to disambiguate speakers. But since it is a style preference, the most important thing pick a style you like and be consistent.

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If I “ask John about his father,” I won’t necessarily know whether to expect the resulting text to include my question, for instance

Ask John about his father.

“What about your father?” you say.
“My father was a tyrant,” John says.

or if the first thing I’ll see is John’s response. So when I start reading the text, I may not know yet who is talking. Tags could reduce the amount of time and effort involved in figuring it out.

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My boring take is that it’s like with static fiction. Plain “he says” is good and not too distracting… about the first time it happens. But if you have a long string of dialogue the tags get insistent and it’s find to drop them. Non-“says” lines should probably be used very sparingly (as you’ve said in the original post) to mark something out specially.*

One thing that’s tricky about that is that unlike in static fiction you can’t necessarily tell whether a given line of dialogue is going to come after three more lines of dialogue or be the first one in the conversation, though you do know where it’s going to come after the command prompt.

FWIW I just played a bit of Emily Short’s Best of Three, which is dialogue with a single character where the player prompts are multiple-choice prompts delivered directly into the text, though the PC will also sometimes speak unprompted. (That is, you may have the choice to say “Thanks ever so much,” and then the PC will say verbatim “Thanks ever so much.”) Here’s how the dialogue lines are delivered so far, by the NPC unless said otherwise, PC dialogue untagged unless said otherwise:

rather tedious accounting

untagged/PC/three quotes in one paragraph interspersed with narration, second one tagged/PC/tagged with “he announces”/PC (not from player input) [scene break] untagged with narration/untagged/PC/untagged/PC/tagged/PC/untagged/untagged/PC/untagged/PC not from input/untagged/PC/untagged/PC not from input/untagged/PC/untagged/tag “he adds”

So most of the dialogue so far is untagged, some interspersed with narration. To my surprise there are as many non-“says” tags as “says” tags.

But this may be an extreme case where it’s easier to do away with tags. The PC dialogue doesn’t need to be tagged since it’s coming verbatim from the prompt, unlike with bg’s example, and the game can be quite confident that the PC has been in dialogue with Grant for a long time, so it’s easier to skip the tags. Galatea IIRC has more narrated action and more tags.

*This is not an infallible rule, I’ve noticed that Marian Keyes rarely uses an unadorned “says” and I won’t hear anything against her, but I also feel that this is sort of a way of conveying that she isn’t fancy so she can sneak the fancy stuff past your defenses.

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Tips I’ve learned for static fiction:

  • Tag just enough to avoid confusion. Start a new paragraph whenever the speaker changes. A direct response to a question probably doesn’t need a tag.
  • Speaker before the verb is generally preferred by agents and editors (at least in the U.S.). Verb before speaker is considered old fashioned.
  • The verb should almost always be say (said). I allow myself to use ask when the quote is a question. When important to the story, I allow myself a more specific verb, like whisper. For me, it has to be literal, not figurative.
  • Interrupted dialog ends with a dash. Speech that trails off ends with ellipsis.
  • You can tag dialogue with a “beat” of action rather than a literal dialogue tag, if you don’t overdo it. (This was a revelation to me.) Often, you’ll use the beat to indicate a pause without literally talking about the pause. (I’m not sure how useful this is for IF, but it’s powerful elsewhere.)

[Annotated] Example:

> ASK JOHN ABOUT HIS FATHER
“What about your father?” [probably doesn’t need a tag because the speaker is clear from the immediate context]

“My father was a tyrant.” [New paragraph for new speaker. Again, speaker is clear from context, so tag is unnecesary.]

Your phone chirps.

>IGNORE PHONE

“Some men are kings of their castle,” John says. [Basic tag appropriate. Note subject before verb, not says John.] “Mr. John Johnson The First was the cruelest of dictators. Mom even attempted a coup once, but Dad put it down. Brutally.”

>ASK JOHN ABOUT HIS MOTHER

“She was a saint.” John breaks eye contact looks down to the floor. [<-- This is an action beat that also makes it clear who’s speaking in this paragraph.] “Well, not really, but next to my father…” [Ellipsis to indicate John leaving the thought unfinished.]

ASK JOHN ABOUT SIBLINGS

“Too many to count,” John says. “All sisters. Let’s see, there’s Beverly, Dianna, Geraldine–” [Dash indicates interruption.]

Your phone starts ringing urgently.

“You gonna answer that?” John asks. [Alternate verb is okay if it fits.]

I learned most (all?) of this from Self-Editing for Fiction Writers by Dave King. The entire book is worthwhile, but there’s a dialogue “mechanics” chapter that I found empowering. I’m not sure how feasible (or important) it would be to code up all of these guidelines, but I like the just-enough-tags to avoid confusion approach more than a tag on everything.

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