Grace's Mosaic Moments

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Playing with Tags

Susie - grilling for the first-time ever
How is that possible, you ask? Because the men in the family do the grilling. But it was Tuesday night, with Mike at soccer practice with the girls and the other two family grillers equally occupied elsewhere. But Susie had organized an impromptu "election results" party, so it was DIY or not eat. I watched, expecting to be blown up any minute, as she turned on the gas and nothing happened. She finally had to call her husband's cousin for advice! The burgers were great, the primary election results not so much. I could tell Rubio was delivering his swan song even before he announced he was dropping out. His "concession" speech was long, impassioned, and left no doubt he was already running for the next election. Too bad he didn't speak that well during the campaign. But I'm among those who fault him for going to Washington and concentrating far more on campaigning for president than working for the people of Florida. But perhaps with maturity . . . He's certainly a far better man than Trump, the bully. It's a crying shame we have so many good-old-boys here in Florida who actually admire Trump's bombastic rhetoric.

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Going back to that old bugaboo, "Harlequin rules." Most of the so-called rules of romance were created by Harlequin/Silhouette back in the '80s and '90s. And among them was one I always found particularly odd. An author should confine dialogue "tags" to said, asked, and thought. Anything else was considered "intrusive."


All the colorful, expressive verbs out there, and nothing but said, asked, and thought??? Fortunately, as I've said before, I had begun to write trad Regencies for Signet, and they emphasized a broad and creative use of language. By the time Signet and Zebra shut down their Regency lines, the strong influence of H/S on romance was fading, their hard and fast rules along with it.

I thought of all this as I was editing the other day, changing a "said" to "mused." And, yes, I had to ask myself, "Is that a viable edit? Would a starship captain 'muse'?" I decided he would, but reserve the right to change my mind on the final edit. Selecting just the right word is a basic part of writing, almost as important as it is in writing poetry. Does the sentence you wrote "sing"? Or does it fall flat, plain old words put together in a plain old way?

Yes, it's possible to overdo colorful, or unique, language. I've edited books for those who stretched the point a bit too far. Ask yourself: Would my hero/heroine actually say this? Think this? Or have you conjured up a word that doesn't fit either their personality or the world they live in?

Without peeking at a manuscript, I'm going to attempt to list the tags I use the most. Do I overuse them? Sometimes. I try to keep an eye out when editing, making sure the use of a particular tag is scattered throughout a chapter. For example, I make an effort to avoid more than one "declared" or "roared" over, say, at least three or four pages.

So . . .
declared, offered, roared, shouted, whispered, murmured, returned, continued, replied, groaned, growled, grumbled, spat out, shot back, countered, inquired . . .

And after peeking through about 8 pages of 2 different manuscripts . . .
asserted, huffed, challenged, mumbled, demanded, crowed, tossed back, protested, insisted, muttered . . .

From some of the books on my shelves . . .
agreed, called, called out, explained, exclaimed, went on, wondered, announced, responded, spat out . . .

Grace Note:  There are countless other colorful verbs that can be used in place of "said" to add clarity and interest to your dialogue. Just be sure they fit the situation and the personality of the person speaking.

And, yes, "said" is still very acceptable - just not all the time. It can even be used when asking a question, but mostly when trying to avoid using "asked" too often. 

As for "thought" - I try to avoid the word as much as possible, preferring to write introspection well enough that using the tag of he/she thought is not necessary. But if you feel your have to use it, then by all means do so. 

No Dialogue Tag Needed:
I once edited a manuscript in which I swear I must have deleted a thousand "saids." Please keep in mind that if you have written narration that makes it clear who is speaking, no tag is needed

Also, if the scene is a conversation between only two people, simple paragraphing can distinguish who is speaking. EXCEPT . . . I've read too many books where the author overdid this, and I've lost track, finally dragging to a halt and saying to myself, "Okay, that character would never say that!" And back I go, re-tracing dialogue until I can figure out who is saying what to whom. Not good. Don't aggravate readers by going in search of snappy dialogue and ending up with a mystery you never intended. 

Dialogue Tags Required:
Any scene with more than two speakers requires a tag for each speaker. There is no other way for readers to understand what is going on.

Avoid using as a tag:
sighed - although commonly used as a tag, it is impossible to sigh and talk at the same time. Therefore "He/she sighed." should come as a separate sentence before or after the dialogue. Example:  "Oh darn." She sighed.

smiled, laughed, giggled, grinned, etc. Same problem as "sighed"

shrugged - although you can shrug and speak at the same time, using "shrugged" as a tag just doesn't work. Example:  "I don't know," he shrugged.  That's just plain bad English. The correct version is: "I don't know." He shrugged. 
greeted - "greeted" makes a poor tag. Example: "How do you do?" he greeted. It's flat-out iffy English. "He greeted her cordially" is an acceptable use of the word, but as a dialogue tag, no way. 

The Ideal Mix:

The best approach to tags is to intersperse them with narration that makes their use unnecessary.

An example from my current Work in Progress, The Bastard Prince.

Kass’s eyes closed; she drew a deep breath, murmured a prayer of thanks. And then she looked for her brother, who was sitting on the floor with his knees drawn up, head down, the ultimate picture of defeat. “K’kadi, you saved our lives. You’re a hero. Again.”

Grace Note: By adding Kass's dialogue at the end of her actions, without paragraphing, I am showing that she is the speaker. I don't have to use a tag.

Example of a passive tag, plus a dialogue exchange that is clear without further tags.

“It’s just a crease,” he heard a med tech say. “Looks worse than it is. Believe me, Highness, the captain has a hard head. He should come out of this all right.”

“How long . . . ?”

“Hard to tell, Highness. He could wake in an hour. Tonight. Tomorrow. Depends on the swelling, but S’sorrokan die from this? I doubt it.” 

Example of faster-moving dialogue with enough tags for clarity.

“But love, family? Don’t you hope for . . . more?” Anneli asked. “You’ve certainly earned the right to happiness.”

“You are kind,” B’aela murmured. “Am I blushing? Fizzet! I thought I was long past such a schoolgirl reaction.”

“So there is someone?”

“Only he doesn’t know it.”

“And Tal has snatched you away at the critical moment!”

B’aela managed a small secretive smile. “You know the saying. ‘Absence makes the heart grow fonder.’”


1.  The best approach to good dialogue is to indicate in the narration (description, action . . . whatever) who is speaking. No tag necessary. 

2.  If writing short & sharp dialogue between only two people, use only enough tags to keep readers from being confused.

3.  If you are writing dialogue between three or more people, you must use a tag for each speaker.

4.  If you do use a tag, be sure it's the best one for that sentence. (Does the tag fit the character speaking? The situation?) Colorful and expressive verbs are good, but like anything else, they can be overdone. Using them sparingly will add to your story, but avoid repetition of a colorful verb for at least three or four pages. You can't sneak in a colorful verb the same way you can those old standbys, said, asked, and thought.

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Thanks for stopping by,


For Grace's website, listing all books as Blair Bancroft, click here.
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