Tag, You’re It

I’ve been wrestling with dialogue tags lately, primarily because my WIP involves a number of characters (an infantry squad if you must know) who talk amongst themselves constantly.  Balancing the requirement to identify who says what against the need to avoid slowing my pace to a snail’s crawl has been a challenge.

I may have mentioned at some point that I minored in Playwrighting, among my other claims to fame (we won’t mention the dating a supermodel incident–primarily because it never happened).  While I was never a great playwright, I did learn a thing or two about dialogue, and I thought I might share a recent insight.

The general rule in fiction I’ve heard kicked around is that you should use “said” whenever possible to tag lines of dialogue.  No tag at all–so-called “naked dialogue”–is even better, as long as the “naked” doesn’t go on too long.  The reason is that “said” isn’t really heard by the reader (I can believe that), and so should be used in all cases where something stronger isn’t needed (retorted, answered, mocked, etc.).

But how do we know when said is proper and when it is not?

To get to the answer, we need to take a short detour.  Let’s look at a scrap of dialogue from a stage play (straight from my unhinged and lucid imagination of course).

(rubbing his belly)

Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

Here we have an action Gavin should be performing (rubbing his belly) as he says the line. Remember that stage plays have to rely almost exclusively on dialogue and character action.  Unlike fiction, description and internal monologue is kept to a bare minimum, so the tag is a way the playwright can tell the actor reading the script how to behave.

What often happens with beginning playwrights is that they misuse the action tag to describe how they imagine the line should be said, like so:

(hungrily, angrily, cornily, crazily, etc.)

Man, I could really go for some of that pie!

What the playwright is trying to do here is compensate for the fact that the line does not carry all the information required to express the needed idea.  Of course, sometimes this is unavoidable, but if you were to take a look at the best plays out there, you would see page upon page of dialogue where no tag is given at all (except in cases where a clear physical action is needed from one of the characters).  Good playwrights make the dialogue do all the work necessary to carry the story forward.

So what does this tell us about tag usage in fiction, you ask?  Well, I was getting to that.  As I said, sometimes dialogue needs the tag to put it in context for the reader.  Observe:

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon crooned.

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon barked.

“Jimmy, come over here,” Sharon whispered.

In these three examples, the tag actually conveys the emotional context for the dialogue.  Without the tag (i.e., using only “said”), the emotion in the line/scene might not be clear.

As this shows, from time to time the right choice is substituting a more muscular verb for “said”, to convey the meaning of the situation.  But another option available–and the preferred one in my opinion–is to think more like a playwright, and make your dialogue do as much work as possible.  For example:

“Jimmy, I want you to come over here,” Sharon hissed angrily.  {good}

“If you don’t come here this very minute, I swear I’m gonna tan your hide!” Sharon said.  {better}

So that’s it in a nutshell.  Let your dialogue do more work, and you may find your job of tagging a little bit easier.  Thoughts?  What do you wrestle with the most when working on your dialogue?

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  1. Scott said:

    I try not to use tags at all. Yes, I'm a rebel that way. Ha!

    "I can't believe you did that." Tyrone reached for the margarita pitcher.

    "Well, I did. Get over it." Miracle Whip shook his head.

    I once read that tags are bad, and so I don't use them . . . at all. Instead, like a playwright, I describe the action. Perhaps I'm wrong in doing this. Perhaps tags have been unfairly maligned and prejudiced in my mind. Who the heck knows?

    Great post and loved the comparisons between playwright and wordwright!

    April 29, 2010
  2. Amalia T. said:

    Nice post! I used to be a non-tagger, like Scott, but I find myself overtagging with saids lately, so I have to go back and cut them out later.

    April 29, 2010
  3. Heather said:

    "Said" can definitely be just fine if your dialogue is up to snuff – great post! I also love your comparison of the playwright to the novel writer.

    April 29, 2010
  4. Summer said:

    I try to use only -said tags. I do some of the stuff Scott mentioned, but that can be just as bad, in my opinion, as ridiculous adverb-laden tags. The key, as always, is moderation.

    April 29, 2010
  5. Liza said:

    Excellent post. This will help me. Thank you.

    April 29, 2010
  6. Great post! The best guidance (very similar to what you've written here) I've seen is that tags should be 'said' unless there is a need for the tag to give a physical clue (whispered, mumbled, shouted). And you should always remember that dialogue cannot be snickered, grinned, or grimaced.

    April 29, 2010
  7. Christine H said:

    I have a "pack" of Rangers who talk amongst themselves and it's tough. So I'm there with you on the whole dialogue thing.

    How I do it? If only two people are talking, I use mostly naked dialogue for a fast-paced conversation, with a beat or "said" tag every three or four lines just to keep the reader on track.

    If more than two people are talking, I have a beat or tag on just about every line, so you know who it is.

    April 30, 2010
  8. Christine H said:

    P.S. I have been reading books I really enjoy that have an occasional non-said tag that, in my opinion, adds greatly to the scene. "Barked" is a good one. Like spices, use sparingly for effect.

    April 30, 2010
  9. I've been dancing the dialogue tango as well with my ten main characters in my WIP. I do tagless as often as possible, but use said if it's unclear (or could be) who is speaking.

    April 30, 2010
  10. Geez, I have so much to learn. I had heard this before, but love your examples and easy teaching style. Thanks!

    April 30, 2010
  11. Cindy said:

    There are some good tips in this post. I'm working harder on trying not to use dialogue tags as much as adding in an action for the character to let the reader know who's speaking and also what they're doing at the same time.

    I think it also varies depending on the genre. Good post!

    April 30, 2010
  12. Donna Hole said:

    All very good feedback; but the other thing you want to avoid is the "talking heads".

    As Scott and Amalia both mentioned, it's wise to use action (like the playwrites) to curb the dialogue tag gluttony. But just as you can get too indulgent with the tags/beats, you can also make a scene too busy, leave the conversation floating in the air.

    Take JP's example of using action within the dialogue:
    "If you don't come here this very minute, I swear I'm gonna tan your hide!" Sharon said.
    Very good mix of dialogue, emotion and action. But lets carry that on for a bit.

    "If you don't come here this very minute, I swear I'm gonna tan your hide!" Sharon said.
    "Yeah right Mom! Like you'd ever hit me. I'll take my chances and sit here with my video game," Jimmy said.
    "See if I don't follow through this time you little brat. Here I come."
    "Ok, I'm up. Just chill out Mom. Now that we're facing each other what did you want to tell me."

    Too much of that and you start to feel the characters are mechanical; emotionless. And the surrounding has dropped out of the scene.

    Then there's using only action beats:
    "If you don't come here this very minute, I swear I'm gonna tan your hide!" Sharon shook her fist to emphasise the depth of her frustration.
    Tommy perched on the edge of his game chair, but continued to stare at his video game. "Yeah right Mom! Like you'd ever hit me. I'll take my chances."
    "See if I don't follow through this time you little brat." Sharon scrunched up her face and lunged.
    Jimmy jumped from his seat, dropping the controller in the same motion. He stepped back and faced his angry mother. "Ok, just chill out. I'm listening."

    Loads of emotion, the scenery is there, but now the scene is busy to the point of distraction. Especially if the next few paragraphs are action scenes, and then more action dialogue.

    At least for my reading tastes.

    I think the trick is not picking one style and running with, but using a combination of each to keep the plot moving forward without overwhelming the reader with any single scene style. Sometimes, maybe it just trial and error in figuring out if a dialogue or action tag is needed, or if naked dialogue suits just as well.

    For myself, the the point is not to get so engrossed in one rule that as a writer, I forget the reader doesn't know the specific craft rules.


    April 30, 2010
  13. Claire Dawn said:

    I avoid tags where possible.

    Beautiful post on how to get around them :)

    April 30, 2010
  14. Thanks for the post. I have been struggling with this with my WiP. I have a lot of characters so I have to tag more than not. This helps.

    April 30, 2010
  15. Portia said:

    Well said! Reading this reminded me strongly of Stephen King's On Writing. He shares similar advice on the use of said.

    It's a tricky balance, isn't it? Making it clear who's speaking without turning your work into a said-fest?

    April 30, 2010
  16. Lola Sharp said:

    As Donna said, it really is about balance.

    I might add, if the characters have been properly developed, each should have their own voice, making skipping tags less confusing to the reader.

    In your case, JP, with many soldiers in a scene giving brief orders and responses, that would make tagging more necessary.

    Moderation and balance is a good rule of thumb.

    April 30, 2010
  17. I tried to do away with tag lines unless the situation made it impossible to get away with this.
    In the first draft of my wip, I kept a list of one hundred possible tag lines by the computer but by draft three it had moved to the bin: a much better spot for it.

    April 30, 2010
  18. I've heard the invisible said rule too, so I try not to use too many adverbs to express a mood or tone etc. If I can show it in the dialogue it seems more natural.

    May 1, 2010
  19. Brian Keaney said:

    I think the rule about using 'said' wherever possible is complete bullshit. I certainly don't adhere to it and I've been reasonably successful writing novels for nearly thirty years. You can say what you like.

    May 1, 2010
  20. Jon Paul said:

    Hi guys! Sorry I'm slow getting back to these comments–but I love the fact that it generated a good discussion. Looks like there's some good heat here and that's just what I like.

    Scott–Yeah, I do that too–mixed with tags and naked.

    Amalia–As others said, it's a fine balance. I probably should have been more clear that my examples related to multi-character (more than two) dialogue, but finding the right mix is a challenge, regardless.



    Jenna–I've heard that advice too.

    Christine–That's what I'm ending up with too.

    Christi–Ten characters! You do have your work cut out for you.

    Rebel–Sure thing!

    Cindy–Your point on genre is a good one, as I thing there's a lot of variety depending on the material.

    Donna–Good point. I would say overuse of just about every rule (except maybe show, don't tell) will get you in trouble. I would suggest that making your dialogue do more work isn't the same as wordiness, or over characterization. In context, an angry character might be very terse, for example. My point was to construct dialogue with care to give the writer more options for how much work the tag does, but perhaps that wasn't clear. Thanks. I appreciate your comment. It added much to the discussion.

    Claire, Christine–Thanks.

    Portia–"Said-fest." I knew there was a word for what I was dealing with. And yes, it is a tricky balance.

    Lola–Exactly. My feeling is that round characters will give you better developed dialogue, which shifts the emphasis off the tags. And moderation too (with all the "moderation" comments, I feel like I'm at an M.A.D.D. meeting or something :)

    Elaine–Hmmm. I hadn't heard of the list method before. My tags usually come organically, then have to be tweaked, at which point I might reach for a thesaurus if I have a particular tricky spot.

    Karen–If memory serves, I think Sid Fleischman is at lest one of the writers credited with the "invisible" said rule. I do tend to subscribe to it too, although not to the exclusion of every other dialogue tool available.

    Brian–I think your comment shows how subjective writing can be–how there are various schools of thought of what constitutes good writing–and your decades of experience makes a very convincing argument. Would you be willing to briefly share your process/approach for tagging dialogue with the group?

    Thank you all for taking the time to stop by and comment!

    May 2, 2010

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