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 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.


“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 a 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!







10 Responses to Tag, You’re It!

  1. Avatar
    Beth August 4, 2011 at 6:04 am #

    I learned not to do a number of those things a long time ago but every once and a while one creeps into my manuscript.Good reminders, Tamela.

  2. Avatar
    Kate August 4, 2011 at 6:25 am #


    Thanks for the nudge to tighten and clarify sentence by sentence. Happy Day!

  3. Avatar
    Melissa August 4, 2011 at 7:45 am #

    I tell new writers about the “began” and “started” thing a lot, but always gave the caveat “unless you absolutely need it.” Because I run into needing it so infrequently, I hadn’t yet figured out why you’d need it besides just knowing when I saw it. Why didn’t I figure that out? Thanks for the succinct explanation.

  4. Avatar
    Marji Laine August 4, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    The “began” and “started” has always thrown me. Thanks for the clarification.

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    Janet McHenry August 4, 2011 at 10:11 am #

    Tamela, fiction workshop presenters taught me that the best word for “said” is “said”–that others only tend to slow down the reader’s eye. I’d appreciate a discussion on this.

    • 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!

  6. Avatar
    Deanne Durrett August 10, 2011 at 8:15 am #

    When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.

  7. Avatar
    Deanne Durrett August 10, 2011 at 8:19 am #

    Oops! I accidentally hit enter before I wrote my comment. Thank you for the great information about tags. And, I think I love you for saying “When a character exclaims, use an exclamation point.” I know moderation in all things is good, but some people seem to want to ban this useful punctuation mark completely.

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    Martha Ramirez September 16, 2011 at 1:52 pm #

    I love action tags! And it’s funny how certain things stick in your head. My brain waves a red flag when I type the words: began and started. Practicing good habits def help.

    Great post!

  9. Avatar
    Sheri Fredricks September 16, 2011 at 3:27 pm #

    A new writer’s greatest foe, the dialogue tag! And I’m thankful for crit partners who catch the ones that always slip by. Fantastic post!

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