They believe the reader must be told who is speaking at all times. When I first began writing fiction, I made the same errors. I committed a number of the mistakes I’m going to list below. Now, I’m a more savvy writer–I’ve spent time learning more about the craft. Seasoned writers at conferences or through editorial feedback helped me see the error of my tagging ways.
I will share some tips for tagging in this post. Perhaps it will clarify some questions you as a new or seasoned writer wonder about.
Tip #1: If two people are talking, the reader knows who said what without constant tagging. Writers let them know with punctuation. Each speaker’s dialogue is in quotation marks. A new speaker with new dialogue has a new paragraph with quotes around their spoken words. If the same speaker continues in a different paragraph, quotes are left off at the end of the previous paragraph to alert the reader. For the most part, writers need not tag each statement. Here’s an example.
Mary walked into the room with an armload of groceries. “Please help me unload this,” she asked Tim.
“Sure.” He rose from the chair with his eyes still glued to the football game.
“I forgot to get the tomatoes you asked for. But, I’ll pick some up tomorrow.”
“Did you manage to fix the sink in the bathroom?”
Tim slapped his head. “Oops, sorry. Not yet.”
“Look. We need to get that fixed before next week. Everyone is coming to the house and we can’t have a leaky sink.
“By the way, are your sisters coming, too?” Mary continued (optional)
Notice in this example the conversation shifted from Mary to Tim but we only used one tag in the beginning and maybe one at the end. In the last interchange, Mary spoke twice. The writer could add “Mary continued,” to help out the reader, but that is optional.
Tip #2: Do not use verbs that show action as a tag. This is such a common mistake that I will venture to say it’s one both new and seasoned writers commit.
The reader reads over them without noticing. When we give the tag more than its purpose, we are in error. For example, “What in the world did you do with my slippers?” Mary demanded. Or “How could you leave without telling me,” Tim hissed. I particularly dislike “hissed.”
And, even if they did, they’d have to have some s’s in the dialogue. Please don’t have your characters hissing. If Mary demands, show her doing it. Example: Mary said with hands on hips.
Tip #3: Not enough tags. Okay, this seems contrary to number 1, but seasoned writers tend to string along pages of dialogue and expect readers to keep up with who is speaking. Jonathan Kellerman does this a lot. As a reader, I have to go back and trace the conversation to figure out who said what. Sometimes the dialogue itself will tell you. The speaker uses a name or a phrase that betrays who they are. But other times, it’s just plain hard. So, please, stick in an occasional tag, Mr. Kellerman, to help us out!
Tip #4: There’s nothing wrong with ‘said.’ For some reason writers get tired of writing ‘said.’ In truth, ‘said’ is the best tag. After all aren’t we pointing out what’s been ‘said’? So, please don’t worry about using said. The other tags that can be freely used are, although not as often as said are: continued and asked. Just remember tags are supposed to be invisible. Don’t make your readers notice them!
These are some tips for tagging that all writers, new and seasoned might find helpful. BTW, I’ve stopped reading some books where the writer continues to make these mistakes.
What tips do you have for tagging?