Tags. New authors love them. Seasoned authors hate them.
And no, I am not speaking of shopping.
For those of you who do not know, tags are the words at the end of dialogue. They usually take the form of the words said, asked, or answered, but other words can be used as well. One of the mistakes new authors often make, and seasoned authors fight against, is the overuse of them. Of course, the problem with overusing tags is that they muddy the writing, causing the reader to pull out of the story. And pulling a reader out of the story is NOT what you want to do.
Now tags serve two functions. The first, and the one of overriding importance, is to ensure the reader knows which person is talking. Tags should, however, be used sparingly, if at all, and only to ensure the reader knows who is saying a particular line of dialogue.
TIP #1 – Use tags sparingly.
The following is from my latest release, Binding Fire. I have added tag lines to show how slow the reading becomes with their overuse.
“Are you sure there is not another reason you wish to go with him?” Jackson asked.
“Whatever does thee mean?” Annie said.
“I think you are still in love with him,” he said.
She looked away. “’Tis too late for us,” she said. “There are too many things we shall never get past.”
“But if you took a trip with him, you might find the time to get past them,” Jackson said.
“I only wish to see Katie,” she said.
Obviously, I have exaggerated to make my point.
Here is the same passage as it reads in Binding Fire, and keep in mind this is a scene with only Jackson and Annie.
“Are you sure there is not another reason you wish to go with him?”
“Whatever does thee mean?”
“I think you are still in love with him.”
She looked away. “’Tis too late for us. There are too many things we shall never get past.”
“But if you took a trip with him, you might find the time to get past them.”
“I only wish to see Katie.”
There are no tags whatsoever. The reader can easily determine who is speaking, and the words flow from the pages and carry the reader along in the story. Along with that, I have Quakered Annie’s speech to further distinguish who she is, as Annie has remarked earlier that Jackson seems to have given up his plain speech.
TIP #2 – Use any tag as a last resort, when it is impossible to otherwise relay the character’s emotion.
The lesser function of tags is to explain a character’s emotion. Using tags to do so, though, should not be done unless there is no other way to show the emotion in the text. Here is a portion of Binding Fire that has been muddied up with synonyms for the word said.
“David?” Jackson laughed. “Is thee listening?”
“Sorry,” David mumbled.
“The horses?” Jackson queried. “Will you sell them back?”
“No,” he bellowed.
At the end of the table, Amon cleared his throat. “I had given no thought to your horses, Son,” he commented.
“I cannot very well leave them here,” David complained.
“Thee left the mare when you went into the militia,” Amon observed.
Again, I have exaggerated, but the point is well taken. Now, read it as it actually reads in Binding Fire.
“David?” Jackson laughed. “Is thee listening?”
“The horses? Will you sell them back?”
At the end of the table, Amon cleared his throat. “I had given no thought to your horses, Son.”
“I cannot very well leave them here.”
“Thee left the mare when you went into the militia.”
I have only one tag – the word laughed. Based on what the reader already knows of the tense relationship between Jackson and David, it is not necessary to give more tags to show David’s frustration or Jackson’s annoying behavior. The quick word “sorry” and “no” clearly show David’s agitation in this particular moment, and the sentence “At the end of the table, Amon cleared his throat” slows down the dialogue, so the reader senses the slow measure of his words. Even David’s response “I cannot very well leave them here,” has an agitated connotation to it, so the reader knows he is barely controlling his temper. Much of the emotion has been set up before this, so the dialogue is a natural outflow of the conflict.
TIP #3 – Do not worry about using invisible words. (After all, they are not really seen!)
Now, one last tidbit about the words said, asked, and answered. These are invisible words, which mean readers pay them no mind at all but merely pass over them. (The exception is if they are used too often and too close together.) When using a tag to be clear who is speaking, it is far better to use these (and please use them appropriately following statements, questions, or answers). Believe me, your readers will hardly notice.
Keep in mind, that for new authors, getting rid of tags is one of the best, first ways to professionalize your writing.
For the rest of us – it’s back to the dragon of editing once again.