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Example:

"I'm not saying you don't know what you are talking about," he said, then looked at her and shrugged his shoulders. "But I don't know what you are talking about."

"I'm not saying you don't know what you are talking about." He looked at her and shrugged his shoulders. "But I don't know what you are talking about."

If I'm not mistaken, both examples are describing the same thing. But I always find my self wondering whether I should use dialogue tags or action tags.

Another example:

He looked to the side and blushed. "I probably love you."

He looked to the side, blushed and said, "I probably love you."

"I probably love you." He looked to the side and blushed.

"I probably love you," he said, after looking to the side and blushing.

"I probably love you," he said, looking to the side and blushing.

Should I stick with some of them, or all of them are useful in different situations?

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Related issue: said bookisms. –  Neil Fein Aug 17 '12 at 3:21
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3 Answers 3

up vote 10 down vote accepted

If it is clear who is speaking, you do not need a dialog tag.

He looked to the side and blushed. "I probably love you."

"He" is looking to the side and blushing, so "he" is the one who speaks. Skip the dialog tag. Add them if you do not have an action tag and it could be unclear to the reader who is speaking.

But this has nothing to do with:

He looked to the side and blushed. "I probably love you."

"I probably love you." He looked to the side and blushed.

Here you are telling two different things. First he cannot stand looking at the other person and then says "I love you." In the second sentence he says he loves the person and then look away. You are telling two different stories.

As an example look at this situation without dialog:

He slapped her. She cried.

She cried. He slapped her.

Two different situation, two different stories. You are switching cause and effect when switching the sentences.

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All your constructions are useful in different situations. Keep John Smithers's comment about cause and effect in mind, and vary your tags so that you aren't repeating the same sentence structure constantly.

In your examples, I like your action tags better than your dialogue tags only because they're a little tighter. There are times when you need use to "he said" or variants thereof, so don't jettison all of them.

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When different phrasings all have more or less the same meaning, I choose the phrasing that creates the tone or mood I want. For that, I listen to the rhythm, tempo, and sounds. Reading the passage out loud, in context, is a big help here.

Some of your phrasings give cues about the order of events. The temporal arrangement of emotions, actions, and dialogue can create subtext that nicely expresses the character's mood. I got different impressions of the character from each of your "I probably love you" examples. In the first one, he proclaims his love despite his embarrassment. In the second, he seems more breathless and blurting. In the third, he seems embarrassed not by what he is feeling, but by having proclaimed his love, or perhaps by the lack of an immediate response. The fifth gives a rich, more complex mood that I'm not sure how to summarize.

I would probably avoid "he said, after..." The sequence in the text mismatches the sequence in which the events happened. This forces the reader to resequence the events, which is jarring. It can be useful if you're trying to show that the character is disoriented, or is overwhelmed and becoming aware of events out of sequence. But those are very specialized situations.

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