Tag, who's it?

One contest entry I received when I was first starting out as a writer had a cryptic comment in the margin. “Overuse of tags.”

What was a tag? I had no idea. Fortunately, I had someone I could ask. A tag is the use of phrases such as “he said,” or “Tom said,” and “she said,” or “Shelly said,” to identify who is speaking in the story.

The frequent use of the word “said” in writing is one time when repeating a word frequently (echo words) is not a bad thing. Readers barely notice tags unless they are used poorly.

Not every piece of dialogue needs a tag. If only two people are in the room you can limit them to every sixth line or so, but if there are three people in the room it gets more complicated. Here is an example of overuse.

Five year old Ryan said, “I can’t tie my shoes.”
His mother said, “Yes, you can, dear.”
Ryan replied, “No, I can’t.”
His mother dropped to her knees and said, “You know how to do this. What’s wrong?”

Placing narrative before or after the dialogue will identify who is speaking and tags aren’t necessary.

Five year old Ryan folded his arms. “I can’t tie my shoes”
His mother smiled at him. “Yes, you can, dear.”
“No, I can’t”
“You know how to do this. What’s wrong?” His mother dropped to her knees in front of him.

Okay. Let’s hear from some of you how you solve the issue of too many tags.
Pat

8 comments:

Roxann Delaney said...

Good topic, Pat.

My friend Kristi Gold has given workshops on Tags and how and when to use them. She admits to being obsessed about the overuse of them. (grin)

To be honest, I don't know how I handle them. I do try to vary them as much as possible. Your example was great. And, yes, 'he said', 'she said' are mainly invisible to the reader, but as you said, it's still wise to use them only when needed for clarification as to who's speaking. Something I should probably pay more attention to in my own writing. :) When reading through later what I've written, I usually spot the overuse and correct, but it's easy to miss them.

Starla Kaye said...

My editors prefer as few tags as possible. They would rather have action lead-ins to the dialogue or action after it to make who is speaking clear, if there would be a question in the reader's mind.

Starla Kaye said...

My editors prefer as few tags as possible. They would rather have action lead-ins to the dialogue or action after it to make who is speaking clear, if there would be a question in the reader's mind.

Joan Vincent said...

Pat,
A clear and concise explanation especially with the example included.
I generally don't pay any attention to tag lines until I begin to edit. That probably goes with being a "seat of your pants" writer. That said I believe the more you write (insert "practice")the easier and more ingrained becomes the habit of using them correctly.

Penny Rader said...

Hi Pat! Your second example is exactly how I try to handle tags. Whenever possible I use physical movement so the reader knows who is speaking. If I have to use a tag, my editor prefers 'said.'

When I first began writing I found "Shut Up! He Explained: A Writer's Guide to the Uses and Misuses of Dialogue" by William Noble quite helpful. Not sure if that book is still available. However, selections of it are in his book, "Three Rules to Writing a Novel: A Guide to Story Development." (Putting on my WARA librarian hat -- We have a copy of this in our library and it is available for WARA members to check out. If someone wants to borrow it, you can stop by my office. Or, give me a holler and I can bring it to a meeting.)

Pat Davids said...

I sometimes do a search for the word "said". Then I look to see if I can eliminate it or if it reads better to let it stay.

Reese Mobley said...

Great job, Reese said.
Thank you, Pat answered politely.
Tag you're it, Reese said so very fondly.
XOXO

snwriter52 said...

There are many techinques I use to help me with tags. Editing is one way I find tag over use. Number two I read the paragraph or the page out loud. Three I'm a visual person. Printing the page helps me as well. If I still need help, I read other authors writing. Writing is a learning experience. Practice and more practice.
Pat thank you for sharing.
Sharon.