Tag s | Craft

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.]

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C.S. Lewis on Writing

by Steve Laube

On June 26, 1956, C.S. Lewis replied to letter from an American girl named Joan with advice on writing:

Always try to use the language so as to make quite clear what you mean and make sure your sentence couldn’t mean anything else. Always prefer the plain direct word to the long, vague one. Don’t implement promises, but keep them.
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Always Be Learning

During the Summer of 1978 the #1 hit on Christian radio was the classic “He’s Alive” by Don Francisco (click here to listen). That same Summer I attended a Christian music festival in Estes Park, Colorado and decided to take a class on songwriting being taught by Jimmy and Carol Owens. I settled into my chair near the back of the room with notepad ready.

Just as the class was about to start a bearded man slide in the chair next to mine….notepad at the ready. To my astonishment it was Don Francisco. (I recognized him from his album cover.)

Here was a singer/songwriter who had the number one hit in the nation…taking a class on songwriting! What did he think he needed to learn?

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The Art of the Sentence

A month or so ago I asked some social media friends what sentence from a book rocked their world. The replies were delightful, and I shared some of them in my June 27 post on this site, titled “In Praise of Memorable Sentences.” There were too many, however, to include …

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You Are Not Your Words

Writers love words. That’s a good thing. But when we become attached to our own words, that’s a bad thing. I see it often in meeting with writers and offering critiques at writers’ conferences. The writer will hand me a piece of his or her work, “to see what you …

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Read It Twice!

I read Gone with the Wind for the first time in the seventh grade. Then I reread it in the eighth grade. Daddy fussed at me for this. “Why are you reading the same book again? You should read something else.” I know he had a point, but I consumed …

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