When I was a kid, hearing the word “tag” meant it was my turn to find and tag the kids who were hiding, with ‘you’re it’. In baseball, if you get tagged running the bases, uh-oh, you’re out.
These days, I’m dealing with different kinds of tags – dialog tags in my writing. Let me tell you that the hide and seek tags were a whole lot easier than these pesky dialog ones. When I first began writing, I was told that tags are meant to let the reader know who is talking: he said, she said, etc. But having written and published one book, and writing my second, I decided to review the system. In my efforts to be a better writer I began wondering about all the rules and when and how to break them.
The “Less is More” motto has always been my mantra. It’s touched all parts of my life including my career as an interior designer and my work as an artist/painter. My painting Brite Brilliance (on the left) could have included a lot more in the foreground like a tree or trees, people, animals, taller plants, and shrubs,. But I decided that “less is more”. I wanted the eye to focus on “the big picture” and so this is the result. And guess what? I sold Brite Brilliance in no time at all.
Here’s the scoop. According to an article by D.M Johnson, He Said, She Said: Dialog Tags and Using them Effectively, on Scribophile. Simplicity is key. Johnson writes that the “less is more” approach is better than all the alternative creative ways of saying “said” i.e. “agreed”, “countered”, “offered”, “argued”. Let alone those pesky adverbs: gently, quietly, softly – she said softly, he said quietly. Dialog tags like “he growled”, “she exclaimed, he replied, etc. Tags that try to be heroic are deceptively dragging your reader out of the story. Those tags are stopgaps, disruptions and a way to ensure that an editor, agent or publisher will toss your manuscript into the garbage. They usually check your dialog first, if they see all those fancy tags, they go no further. You’ve been tagged a reject.
Johnson says that dialogue tags (or speech tags) are like signposts, attributing written dialogue to characters. Dialogue tags don’t need to be fancy, splashy, or self-conscious. Their primary purpose is to show which characters speak and when. The greater the number of characters involved in a scene, the more important the frequency and positioning of tags becomes.
Adding adjectives and adverbs to tags to provide specific information about the speaker or the speech—she asked warily; he said innocently. These are called adverbial tags. Sometimes adding an adverb to a tag can be useful, a quick way to indicate a mannerism or emotion (she said quickly; he said coldly) without drawing it into a longer, descriptive sentence. As a caveat, it’s frequently suggested in writing advice columns and books that such tags be used with a careful hand; an adverb can make a tag more obvious and remind people they’re reading a story instead of experiencing it. Still, published authors use them when it fits the situation.
You can apply this motto to everyday life. When you’re organizing your home office, decorating your living room, putting together an outfit for a job interview or a night on the town. Remember, “less is more”.
For more information on dialogue tags check out DM Johnson’s article. She has a ton of great stuff to say.
D.M. Johnson is a published author and an editor dedicated to helping writers achieve their goals. Her background includes a BS in English and marketing. She provides editing and critique services through Word-Edge.com, offers specialty publishing for unique projects, and teaches writing classes online.
Gail Ingis Claus is an author, artist/painter and interior designer. Her upcoming romance The Unforgettable Miss Baldwin will be released in the spring 2018. Her current historical romance, Indigo Sky can be purchased on amazon.