You know what the problem is with the world today? Too many tags.
Think about it.
Tags on mattresses, threatening you with Alcatraz if you tear them off. Tags on shirt collars, sanding the fine hairs off the back of your neck. The tags on your dog’s collar that sound like the chimes on Big Ben every time she shakes her head. The tags on your car that cost you an arm and a leg. Facebook tags: “Hey, Bob, was that really you with a can of Bud in one hand and a can of whipped cream in the other?”
See what I mean?
Tags are seditious, that’s what they are. Especially when you’re writing dialogue. (Slick transition, yes?)
Okay, let’s stop here a second, so I can make one fact very clear: I AM NOT AGAINST ALL TAGS, ALL THE TIME. But IMHO, the only good tag is a vital tag, i.e., one that serves a definite purpose. What, you want examples? Fair enough. Vital tags ….
- identify the speaker, when the flow of dialogue may be confusing without them (e.g., there are more than two speakers or when a block of narrative has interrupted the dialogue),
- contribute emotional data (e.g., reveal excitement, joy, anger, desperation, sadness, etc.),
- help control the rhythm of a conversation,
- add humor,
- and do other stuff I probably can’t think of right now.
When it comes to tags, my first personal rule of thumb is this: If you can avoid using a tag, do it. If there’s any other way to identify the speaker, use it. (This is what we wordsmiths call a Compound Rule.)
My second personal rule of thumb is this: If you decide to use a tag, don’t get silly with it.
Now lest you think I’m just overly picky, I’m not the only author with strong feelings on the subject. In his book, On Writing, Stephen King comes down hard on excessive tagging. He also claims said is the only tag you need, but I beg to differ. (Pretty gutsy, huh? Arguing with one of the most prolific, best-selling authors of our time?) There’s nothing wrong with a said here or there, but too many saids make me want to beat my head against the wall. Robert B. Parker, one of my favorite authors, is a famous example of what I like to call the Said Syndrome. If saids were pepper, his otherwise marvelous dialogue would give me heartburn. (And that’s not counting the passages where he bounced said around intentionally to evoke humor. Believe it or not, said can be funny, but you want to make sure you’re funny with it on purpose.)
So how can you identify the speaker without resorting to tags? Well, one way is to sandwich some identifying action into the conversation.
I shook my head. “I don’t like it.”
“Neither do I.” Hank washed a hand down his face. “But damn it, I can’t think of any other way.”
If only two people are talking, you can get away without tags and/or description for a long time. Probably not indefinitely, but for a page or two. Straight, unadorned dialogue is a great way to pick up the pace or deliver a lot of back-story/facts in a hurry. Of course, as with any writing technique, too much is too much. Pages and pages of dialogue stripped of tags and/or description can become tedious.
Dialogue involving more than two speakers needs tags. Only way I know of to help the reader keep everybody straight. Okay, I might need tags in this case, but I still like to be stingy with them. Say three people are in the room and two are going back and forth. Maybe I can dispense with a few tags there. Soon as the third guy jumps in with his two cents, I gotta have ’em. (Tags, not his two cents.)
Unlike Brother King, I like to vary tags, but in a natural way. Meaning, I don’t turn contortionist or wear out my thesaurus trying to come up with unusual tags. I always pay attention to context when I pick a tag, making it do as much work as possible. Here are a few I use:
- interjected (I don’t use this often, but I like it when it fits.)
- pointed out
- offered (as a suggestion)
Here are a few tags I have seen in best-selling novels that, to my ear at least, sound stilted and silly:
- proclaimed (unless used humorously)
- cried (I admit, this one seems very popular. Different strokes, as they say.)
- drolled (Really?)
- demanded (I always figure this should be understood from the context.)
- any tag that calls to mind waistcoats and bustles (Unless the characters in question are actually wearing waistcoats or bustles. Period pieces have a voice all their own.)
I reserve final judgment on my tags (or lack of them) until I read the dialogue out loud. If I can hear the give and take, and if I don’t stumble over any of the tags, I figure I’m on the right track. Last test is to let somebody else read it and see if they can follow along.
Writing dialogue can be a real challenge, but it’s also fun. Just keep it natural and don’t start playing tag.