Tag! You're It!

Friday, October 15, 2010

And as this is freeze tag, and I've caught you, now you have no choice but to stay there and read my blog. Ha! I win!


When did dialogue tags become a "topic of concern" with writers? Aren't they supposed to be somewhat benign in the grand scheme of things?

I always thought so, which is why I'm usually surprised to see (major) questions about the "acceptable" number and types of tags "allowed".

(Before I go off on the bulk of this post, I'm going to point something out here -- you are not in English class. Even if you are a student who still attends class, and one of those classes is English, you're still not in English class when you're writing for professional reasons. Get the "rules" out of your head. There are no grades here and no one with a red pen searching for subtle irony and hidden themes.)

Now, back to our regularly scheduled attempt at sounding like I know stuff --


Dialogue tags are those little bits after a line of spoken word that identify the speaker, their mood, or actions. The most common, (and the one many will say should be the only tag utilized) is the standard "he said".


There are those who like copious numbers of tags:

"Tags," he said. "Are necessary to establish who is speaking which words at what time."

"Yes," she agreed. " Without tags, one would not know the conversation's participants without them.

"But it can get annoying when every single line is tagged for no real reason," he said.

"Quite," she said.

"And I mean every line," he said.

"I know," she said.

"Every. Single. One," he explained.

"STOP IT," she ordered. "You're annoying me!"

"Sorry," he apologized. (But he kept right on tagging away...)

And those who prefer their manuscripts to bounce around starkers:

"We are talking."

"Yes, my friend. It's a veritable verbal sparring match."

"I say my words."

"And I say mine."

"I might mention someone with whom I am familiar."

"I think I'll talk about my job."

"Who are you again?"

"I'm not sure, as the writer didn't think it was necessary to tell us who was speaking and in what order."

"But order is important! What if the reader can't follow the conversation without names? And why are we naked?"

"This writer likes the "starkers method" of dialogue tagging. It's supposedly very literary."

"But what are we doing while we're talking?"

"Standing completely still, I guess. And our voices must be monotone. In fact, you're lulling me into a stupor.

"Must leave conversation... too sluggish... "

"No action cues... feet won't move... goodbye cruel world..."

"And crueler writer..."

"All we wanted was a pair of pants..."

Tags are useful for pointing out unusual reactions, like laughter when the words being tagged would usually denote tears.

"He's dead." <--- on it's own, this is a statement that would include images of shock or mourning, and doesn't require qualification. "He's dead," she laughed.

"He's dead," he announced.

"He's dead," she said, trembling.

"He's dead," she asked.

"He's dead." His son fainted as soon as the words were out.

"He's dead," she explained. "Try someone else."

Different tags impart different energy to the scene and speaker. When the action or reaction doesn't follow logical paths, then tag away and make it easy for your reader to understand.

Making it "easy", brings me to the next sore spot:

"THROW AWAY THE THESAURUS!" some cry.

I'm not quite sure why they're passionate enough about the issue for it to warrant tears, but whatever floats your boat. (Though if you throw them away, then many, many trees will have died in vain and the planet will hate you. Not to mention that there are so few dinosaurs left in the world that the senseless slaughter of the only remaining abundance of "saurus" out there is just wrong. <-- sounded funnier in my head, but I'm not backspacing, so deal with it.) I think it's a fair guideline to say "stick to words you're familiar enough with to have as part of your daily vocabulary" rather than grabbing a thesaurus to find alternatives. "No!" she interjected. "You shall never wrest my shiny word bank from my hands! It makes me sound intelligent and literal."

"I think you mean literary," her opponent elucidated. "And you're wrong. It makes you sound stupid and stilted. Why would I wrestle you for a book? We'd just get dirty. So, unless there's cash involved, I'll pass."

"Ha! I am triumphant," she vociferated.

*snicker*

"You just vociferated in public!"

"So what?" she beseeched in a questioning manner of asking her interrogative.

"So next, you'll be asserting, bleeting, and dare I say ejaculating things into the conversation!"

(seriously, why do people do that? It's hardly mixed company conversation... unless of course you're into that sort of thing... Personally, when I see that one, I think some twelve year old has learned a new word from Daddy's "collection" of "vintage photo art" and thinks it's funny to use it. You know, the way twelve year olds laugh at toilet jokes.)

"Hmmf! You're just envious because you lack the fortitude and lexicon of jargon to do it!" she declared with all the declaration an exclamation point could declare.

"Sure... that's it... yeah..."

The "no thesaurus" advice is usually sound, IMO, but it's not just for dialogue tags. You shouldn't be tossing around words you don't use regularly enough to know their connotations. Words are like musical notes. They have pitch and key and tone, and if you put something sharp where you want a flat, then it's going to sound wrong.

One of the best compliments I've ever gotten from a beta reader was the woman who said my prose was full of "big" words, but it sounded natural as though that was the way I speak, and because of that it made things flow. Well, it is the way I speak. I don't walk around sounding like a Word-a-Day calendar, but I generally try to make wording precise. For me, using more common words will make me stumble.

If you're going to use the less common ways of saying things, make sure they sound natural when you do it, otherwise you'll end up typing page after page of useless lines.

"Oh, my phalanges!" The writer decried the pain in her aching fingers after a twenty hour type-a-thon.

"Your phalanges and my cranium," her poor, beleaguered reader lamented.

"Why are you remonstrating? It was my oculi which had to countenance the strain."

"You sound almost sanguine that you've made me endure this ultra-violent strain of frou-frou flu!" The reader was not at all sympathetic.

"But think of what it will do for your vocabulary!"

"You mean the part where it makes me think the words, while technically correct, mean things they weren't intended to convey?"

"Shut up," she said, remembering this was a post about dialogue tags and quickly adding one. (see, I'm on topic, really.)


The "purple prose" method of tagging isn't nearly as annoying to me as the "Captain Obvious" method. I can only assume that this is some cast-off love child of the "using said" advice and whatever remnants of English Lit are knocking around the writer's brain from High School.

"Somethings don't need explanation," she said. <--- the standard "said" tag. While it's obvious she is saying something, as this is dialogue, these little "saids" can help keep the speakers straight. That is in no way justification for any of the following. "Really?" she questioned, questioning her need to ask when the question mark was right there in plain ink.

"YES!" he exclaimed, using an exclamation point to drive the point home.

"I can explain," he explained, "The explanation is lengthy and very near infodump territory, but I shall explain it none the less."

Some things don't need to be tagged. The reason we have punctuation is so that the intent of the statement is carried through without having to add extra words to explain the connotation. Just like you don't have to tag a line with an action that's made clear by the dialogue itself. (If the dialogue says what comes next is an explanation, then you don't need a tag to say it as well.)

3 Chiming In:

Nate Wilson said...

I vociferate in public all the time. It's not as bad as you make it out to be.

Thanks, Josin, for the highly entertaining post! And I'm not just saying that. (If I was, there'd be a dialogue tag.)

Bethany Mattingly said...

Hi! I hopped over here from a series of random blog hopping :) Such a fun post :) I've seen the same concern lately too. At first I thought it was just a he said vs. he tossed his hair from his eyes type debate, but it's turning into something a lot more. I'm not sure what to think about it, but I love your approach.

Michelle said...

Hopped over from Nathan Bransford's blog and decided to stay. Your post had me ROFL! Seriously, though, I needed this lesson to prep me for NaNoReMo. Yes, I must turn 29,000 words into at least 50,000 words. We're talking serious stress on my phalangees.

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