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Thursday, April 22, 2010

It’s Okay to go Tagless!

One of the best self—editing books ever written is Self—editing for fiction writers by Renni Brown and Dave King. If you don’t have it yet, pick it up. It’s my bible when I’m editing. I’ve read it a million times and will continue to do so for as long as I’m editing.

They’ve dedicated an entire section to dialogue and some of the best advice I’ve ever read. This is what they had to say that became my (aha!) moment.

“You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.

If you’re like most authors, you write sentences like these almost without thinking. What could be easier than to tell the readers how a character feels? If she is astonished you just say so——it saves all sorts of time and trouble. It’s also lazy writing.

I think that one paragraph did it for me and made me completely understand the mechanics of dialogue. Now I’m no expert by any means and I still sometimes catch myself falling into that tag trap. That’s my new word by the way——tag trap lol.

First off, this is telling in one of its simplest forms. Secondly, you haven’t reached deep pov and lastly you’re cheating your readers out of your true creative writing. Dialogue is one of the places your manuscript can really shine. In dialogue you almost always have more than one speaker and it’s sometimes important to keep from having talking heads. If you must use a tag, said is almost always your best bet.

I’m still getting a good foot hold on characterization but there are a few tricks I’ve learned that perhaps I can pass on. Getting deep into pov is one of the ways to determine one character from another. If you’ve done your homework on each character you will see that they’re often as different as night and day. I have a series with four brothers. Of course one of them gets killed off but they’re completely different. Gade is a bounty hunter and has hero instincts where as his younger brother Rio is completely anti—hero and it comes across in his attitude. He’s often cynical, sarcastic and sometimes just a pain in the tush. His actions clearly say “I’m completely selfish.” That’s characterization.

Using action instead of tags is another way to avoid the talking heads but as I’ve had someone point out to me recently it too can become repetitious. So place action only where it conveys a part of the character or helps move the plot forward. Don’t just toss in a raised eye brow unless he/she has a reason to raise an eyebrow. And then don’t do it again until it’s absolutely necessary.

Looking back at our example: “You can’t be serious,” she said in astonishment.

“You can’t be serious” conveys astonishment——no explanation is needed. And when you explain dialogue that needs no explanation you are dumbing down your readers. Trust in the reader.

There are many different ways to write astonishment. The way we react under the influence of emotion is one of the things that make us who we are.

Using one of the examples they use in the book because I am lazy today, let’s see the different ways we can use.

She dropped the whisk, splattering meringue up the cupboard door. “You can’t be serious.”

Here’s my sad attempts lol, so no flaming allowed.

A single dark brow rose over his cold blue eyes. “You can’t be serious.”

Both of her lily white hands lifted to smother the gasp and giggle. “You can’t be serious.” (Can you almost hear the southern drawl and I’ll bet she’s blue eyed with blonde ringlets.)

So essentially don’t use a tag unless you absolutely have to, get deep into your characters head and know what they would say or wouldn’t as well as how they would say it. I would be careful with inflections and accents in writing and use them sparingly. Although, I will say if you start a character using the word “yew” instead of you, than be consistent. Don’t let them slip into the formal you by accident. Again this all comes from knowing your character.

So tell me what other ways can you think of to convey emotion without using a tag?


  1. Great post, Melissa. BTW, I love that book. I read it several years ago and had many moments where I thought, okay, now I get it. They also said people cannot hiss words unless there is an s on the last word they say. I can't tell you how true this is. I stood in front of my mirror and practiced it just to see. No lie! I use action and setting a good deal to convey emotions. I like to think of three of four actions particular to each of my character, or certain expressions and I pepper them throughout the story.

  2. I actually have not read that book. However, I couldn't agree more about tags and I am still working on editing them out completely. In an earlier blog (I think) I mentioned that I often use the tags during my first draft of dialogue. Only because a lot of times the conversation is coming at me and it is easier to do the he said/she said bit. But at the first edit, most of those tags disappear (hopefully)

  3. Great blog, Melissa. I don't have this book, but I'll pick it up. I have another on dialogue that says something similar. I use action to convey emotion, but also to give the reader a clue as to who is speaking. Too many dialogue tags start to bother me after a while, but I bet I didn't notice them before I started writing. :)

  4. Great post, Melissa, and that is my absolute FAVORITE book on craft. I read it every time I start to edit, and I often read it before starting work on a new project, too. It's amazing how many of the things they taught have just become ingrained in my writing, even though it is meant for the editing phase.

    I try to mix it up in dialogue. I'll put in some regular dialogue tags (he said), the occasional more descriptive tag, some with nothing, and some with an action tag. I think I usually get a good balance. For me, the key to deciding how much to use is clarity. If it isn't clear who is speaking, then something has to be added - and sometimes, adding in an action tag is overkill. That's when I know I'll need a speech tag.

  5. Julie, you know until someone pointed that out to me about hissing a word, it didn't dawn on me how true that is.

    Yes, Amy, and it was you that inspired this blog when you said that, I thought you know that's a good way just to get it all down on paper. Then you can edit them out. That's a great way to do it and I think I'm going to try it out.

    Samatha, you know you're right - I probably never noticed all the tags before I started to learn the rules but I notice them now to the point it can be distracting when I read a book. I guess ignorance really is bliss LOL.

    Mindy I think you're the one who pointed out to me how many actions I was using and omg I had an aha moment! So glad you noticed that. I've really gone back and tried to edit a lot of those out. Great catch!

    I have such a wonderful crit group and thanks ladies for stopping by and sharing your experiences with tags!

  6. Great post, Melissa.

    Sadly, I often find this common in romance novels, where it seems it's an easy solution for the authors instead of trying to re-phrase their speech and actions to make them more immediate.

    Since taking writing classes some years ago, I have consciously begun to mix tags, use limited descriptive tags or leave them out where the speech itself says it all. But it's been a long journey to get to this point, and I still catch myself using them. Only strict editing can get rid of them for good... and the eagle eyes of my critique girls.

    By the way, nice turn of phrase, 'tag trap'! ;-)

  7. Thanks for stopping by Cathie, I don't think there is anything more valuable to a writer than a good critique group. And once you find one, hold on tight. =)

  8. Oh dear, another book for the TBR pile. This is an area I'm slowly getting my head around as I edit older manuscripts. Might try to read this one before I start my next project. I would love to spend less time in edits.

  9. Great post, Melissa! Sorry I'm a day late commenting!

    I entered a contest a few years ago with my first book and it was an open contest where people could read and vote for you. One of the comments was that I could lose about half of my dialog tags. That was the first time anyone had ever said anything about tags to me, so I pondered it for a while and then figured out how I could make my writing better by removing them.

    Janet Evanovich talks about tags in her book on writing and says that if you must use a tag, that you should almost always use simply "he/she said." She talks about how saying things like "He yelled" or "she explained" can take a reader out of the story, but that our eyes just skim over the word "said" without giving it any thought or importance. I thought that was interesting.

    Great topic and I'll definitely have to check out that book! Sounds like a must have! :)