Tag, You’re It!

One of the most common habits I see burdening stories is overemphasis on conversational tags, which goes hand in hand with not making good use of action tags. Here’s an example I just made up:

“No,” she exclaimed. She looked at the the pot of stew bubbling on the stove and saw red juice splattering. She began to stir.

Unable to resist multitasking, I demonstrated several bad habits in the above sample of poor writing.

First, punctuation. When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

“No!”

“She exclaimed” adds no new information unless you need to designate a character from several, so in almost every case omit it. Same can be said for tags, such as “said” and “asked.” In fact, “asked” accomplishes nothing because the question mark says it all.

Any tag should reflect what the character is saying. “He’s a slippery snake,” she hissed trumps, “What a viper,” she hissed. If in doubt, entertain the office cat. Read sentences aloud to make sure the tag works.

And notice the character stirring. “She began to stir,” should be replaced with “She stirred.” Why? Because as soon as you begin to stir, you are stirring. Use “began” for a huge project a character can’t perform in one sitting. For example, “She began reading the Old Testament.” She can’t finish reading the Old Testament today, so “began” works here. Otherwise, the term puts a drag on vivacious verbs.

Some authors give action tags the college try, then ruin everything with an unnecessary tag. I made this one up, too:

“Fetch, Buster! Go!” Marissa threw the rawhide bone as hard as she could, hoping the collie would repeat the trick she had spent weeks teaching him. The bone took flight and then disappeared over the fence. To her shock, she heard a thump and a yelp–from a human. She desperately wanted to meet her muscular new neighbor, but not this way. “Oh no!” she exclaimed.

Again, the tag at the end adds no new information. Drop it.

And now, back to the bubbling pot:

“No!” Nearly tripping over Buster, Marissa strode to the stove, grabbed the spoon, and stirred the spaghetti sauce. She frowned. “It’s burned.”

Slipping behind her, Brad embraced her waist with his muscular arms. “Don’t worry. I didn’t marry you for your cooking. Or your aim.”

See how much can be accomplished by good use of actions tags? Even happily ever afters!

 

[A previous version of this post ran in August 2011.]

23 Responses to Tag, You’re It!

  1. Avatar
    Rita Stella Galieh August 5, 2011 at 3:59 pm #

    I’ve just gone through my 100,000 word manuscript and I swear I must have cut out hundreds of those ubiquitous tags!

  2. Avatar
    Julie Christian December 12, 2019 at 5:20 am #

    Great post, Tamela! I don’t know many writers who feel that dialogue comes naturally. We all can learn from this. I struggle with tags. I will pass this on to my critique group! (Side note: we have one novice writer who is exceptionally talented at dialogue and I am always envious.)

    • Avatar
      Brennan S. McPherson December 12, 2019 at 7:30 am #

      Good writing is always hard work! Certain elements are easier for some people than for others, but nothing about good writing is ever easy. 🙂

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 10:53 am #

      So glad I could help!

    • Avatar
      Gail Gaymer Martin December 12, 2019 at 2:03 pm #

      I stopped using tags a couple of years ago. Instead I use action or a thought to indicate the speaker. If the tag is truly needed, I will use one – but that’s rare. There are so many ways to indicate the speaker without using tags and I was happy to let them go. To me the cut into the story and seemed artificial. I know readers need to know who’s speaking but there are so many other ways to let them know and I prefer to use those.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 3:08 pm #

        Gail, you are an amazing writer so I hope our readers will listen to your advice! Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Avatar
    Amanda H. December 12, 2019 at 6:14 am #

    Great advice. Thank you.

    What about using tags as a way to slow an exchange of dialogue? To show a pause or hesitation in the character’s speaking? When I read out-loud, there are places I want a pause without saying, “she paused” or “he hesitated,” or even adding some other action beat. What do you think?

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 10:47 am #

      Yes, sometimes it does make sense to slow down the dialogue. One solution is to place your characters in a situation where they are acting as they speak. Examples might be sharing a pot of tea or walking through a garden. Then some action tags can make sense and keep the scene interesting.

  4. Avatar
    Maralee December 12, 2019 at 6:36 am #

    You missed a typo. “She looked at the the pot of soup…” ?

  5. Avatar
    Loretta Eidson December 12, 2019 at 6:43 am #

    Love this post. I love being reminded on how to make our writing better. Thank you for this tidbit of information, Tamela.

  6. Avatar
    Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 12, 2019 at 7:30 am #

    Poor aim…reminded me of an incident that doesn’t fit into a sonnet.

    Years ago, I lived on a California cul-de-sac with a canyon to the rear, and houses to either side. I had a Pit Bull named Jolly Tulip, and one day he found a very large and very dead lizard, whose innards were a shockingly bright blue. I teased it from him, tried to throw it over the back fence, and came up short. Mr. Tulip brought it straight back, dropped it at my feet, and looked up with delighted expectation.

    A new game!

    I trie the throw again, but this time, due to his saliva and other things making slippery the object in question, my aim was off, and the lizard took it last flight sideways, over a neighbour’s fence and (with a splash) into their swimming pool.

    And then the screaming started, for they were having a pool-party for a child’s birthday.

    Mr. Tulip was devastated and betrayed at the seemingly deliberate discarding of his toy, jumped onto the fence, and, hooked to the top by his elbows (hind paws scrabbling at the boards) aded to the din with his wails of anguish.

    But all was not lost, for the man of the house next door retrieved the lizard, placed the now-chlorinate toy into Tulip’s mouth, and said, with perhaps more emphasis than might have been warranted by the simple act, “You’re WELCOME.”

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 12, 2019 at 7:47 am #

      Couldn’t resist having a go…

      Mr. Tulip found a reptile;
      ’twas dead, with innards blue,
      and beheld in sorrow while
      o’er yon fence it flew.
      It landed with a soft ker-PLUNK
      in the neighbour’s pool.
      Thus was their child-party sunk,
      and screams marked me the fool.
      Tulip perched upon the fence,
      wailing out his misery,
      so then my gracious neighbour hence
      returned his loved trophy.
      “You’re WELCOME!”; he expressed his heart
      of which sarcasm had large part.

      • Avatar
        Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 10:54 am #

        LOL!

  7. Avatar
    sharonkconnell December 12, 2019 at 8:04 am #

    Thank you, Tamela. Well said.

    In my own writing, I sometimes find that a dialogue tag is necessary to indicate who is speaking, if you don’t want to use a mundane action in the scene and have it sound forced. But for the most part, action beats are what I use.

    In my reading, what I don’t like to see are substituted words for “said”. Words like exclaimed, declared, spoke, etc., in an attempt to not use the word “said”. When it’s needed…use it.

    My writing style is deep point of view, and I love to get my characters into action. But one can only use minor actions so often to show who is talking before it almost sounds the same as, “He said, she said.” Just my opinion. I try to use balance, leaning heavily on action beats.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 10:55 am #

      Right, and you can’t “laugh,” “grin,” “smile,” or even “frown” words so “said” is a better tag than some other verbs.

  8. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver December 12, 2019 at 8:24 am #

    Thanks, Tamela, for helping us polish our writing. And to Andrew– I laughed all the way through your story. It made a great word picture.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 12, 2019 at 8:42 am #

      Roberta, I’m so glad you enjoyed meeting Mr. Tulip!

      He was quite a character. I liberated him from the custody of campus police at a college that shall remain nameless (he would have been turned over to the pound, and summarily killed because he was a Pit), and spent that day, until I could get him home, wheeling him about in an old TV shipping box strapped to a hand-truck.

      He had an odd habit, when all was quiet, of retiring to a lavatory, sitting in the sink, and admiring his reflection in the mirror (and he was a handsome chap).

      I thought this unique to Jolly Tulip until I saw my new service dog, Belle (a husky-shepherd mix, and also not small) doing the same thing.

      Do dogs share with us a touch of vanity and pride? I wonder.

  9. Avatar
    Pearl Fredericksen December 12, 2019 at 9:32 am #

    Thanks for the tips Tamela! And for explaining the reasons and giving examples. This is really helpful.

    • Avatar
      Tamela Hancock Murray December 12, 2019 at 10:56 am #

      So glad!

  10. Avatar
    Nancy Massand December 12, 2019 at 11:24 am #

    I. Loved. This. ‘Nuff said.

  11. Avatar
    Roberta Sarver December 12, 2019 at 11:25 am #

    Andrew, our little terrier shows pride in a different way. He hates getting his picture taken and absolutely won’t look at himself in a mirror. But he’s sensitive when people laugh at him. When our grandchildren try to dress him in one of those silly Christmas outfits for dogs, he hunkers down in embarrassment. He acts humiliated when our granddaughter puts a hat on him. He resignedly allows us to put a winter “jacket” on him to go outside in cold weather. Yes, I think dogs mirror humans in a lot of ways. But I’ve never seen a dog gaze at himself/herself in a mirror.

    • Avatar
      Andrew Budek-Schmeisser December 12, 2019 at 7:19 pm #

      Roberta, terriers are something else. We have one, Bella, whom Barb rescued broken-backed from a flooded ditch.

      I made a wheelchair for her, which she disdains, preferring to hop along the ground (her spinal cord was not severed, and she has some control over her hind legs, and full control over ‘functions’).

      She weighs perhap ten pounds, and will charge among the other dogs (some over fifteen times her weight), barking, growling and nipping…and she gets away with it.

      But she, too, has a problem with photographs, until she can gain her feet and be photgraphed standing. You can just see it in her face as she bounces to her wobbly hindfeet: “All, right, take the picture already!”

  12. Avatar
    Heather Earles January 14, 2020 at 12:09 pm #

    Thank you so much for this post. I have read where it’s okay to put in tags as the reader doesn’t really notice. However, after trying your example the story is much improved.

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