When I started on this long journey, one of the first things I learned was the difference between a vocal tag and an action tag. It was part of the information I gleaned by reading magazine stories and learning how to properly set up a manuscript for submission.
Lately, there seems to be some confusion as to what is a vocal tag and what is an action tag, and how to properly format them.
Here’s the lesson I learned many, many years ago, and it’s still true today.
A vocal tag uses a word that can be related to either said or asked. Dialogue in this instance is done with a comma, question mark, or exclamation point at the end of the sentence, the closing quotes, and then the tag without capitalization.
An example of this would be: “We’re right on course for adventure,” he said.
It doesn’t appear like this: “We’re right on course for adventure.” He said.
You can add action to the end of that tag. All you have to remember if you’re using said or asked (or one of the many synonyms of those words) is that you need the comma and closing quotes with the tag being in lower case.
One of the bigger problems I’ve seen is making action tags, meaning those tidbits showing what a character is doing, into a vocal tag.
“We can’t get that done,” he laughed, “but we’re sure gonna try.”
No matter how hard you try, you cannot get out a full sentence while you’re laughing. And you probably can’t run and do a whole paragraph of dialogue at the same time. You’d probably not be able to breathe very well.
Action tags are meant to break up the typical said/asked vocal tags. Your character is doing not saying. That means you format them differently.
“I can’t believe he said that.” Kindra smiled. “Do you think he likes me?”
Yes, you can smile and speak at the same time. And many people will claim a smile can say a thousand words. It probably can. But a smile is an action. A smile alone doesn’t say the words, the person does.
“I can’t believe how awful today was.” He flopped onto the bed. “Tomorrow better not be as bad or I’m not getting up!”
Flopped is definitely a word that is all action. The reader will see in their mind’s eye how the young man literally falls backward and expresses his frustration at how the day went. In no way can flopped be considered a vocal tag though.
There are many synonyms for say and ask, and you can use those in your vocal tags if you want to express action or emotion. You might even toss in a few, or more than a few, adverbs to tell the reader what they’re supposed to be feeling (a subject for another day). But instead of being confused about what’s a vocal tag and what’s an action tag, simply think, “Is this word a synonym of ask or said?” If you can’t say that it is, then you must be using an action tag.