Isn’t it interesting how many different meanings a single word can have? “Tag” is no exception. Used in some contexts, the term might suggest the clandestine nocturnal activities of rival gang members, intent on marking their territory in spray paint, or little kids chasing one another around a park with gleeful shrieks of laughter, or moving day. In fact, has about twenty separate meanings for this three letter gem. Fortunately, I’m only interested in discussing the literary one, ie. “to label dialogue so as to clearly identify the speaker in a literary work.”

Having attended any number of writing classes, seminars and conferences, I have received my fair share of advice on “tagging.” The trouble is, no one seems to agree completely on which methods are allowed, let alone which ones work best. That being the case, I think I’ll share with you the ones I’ve seen and used, with some of their pros and cons, and then let you decide. Anything more is just too much responsibility.

Having established that there are only two speakers in a particular scene, there may be no need to tag any line after the first. Simply beginning a new line each time the speaker changes is enough. This places additional emphasis on the words themselves and generally gives the impression of a fast paced discussion or even, with the right verbiage, an argument or other passionate exchange.  Unfortunately, the “no tag” method does not work when there are more than two speakers and tends to be less effective for slower exchanges.

A twist on the “no tag” method is the action tag, wherein physical movement or facial expression identifies the speaker. J.D. Robb is a past master at this technique. Here is an example from her novel, Promises in Death. The dialogue is from a conversation between Eve (A smart, tough NYC detective) and her smart, hyper-successful and wildly attractive husband, Roarke.

He tapped the open box. “What’s this?”

“It was Coltraine’s. Morris…he wanted me to have it.”

Across those jeweled wings he smiled at her. “I think you’ll be able to look at that in days to come, and feel good. Can you go home?”

“Yeah. Peabody’s handling the grunt work.”

“Let’s go home, and have an evening being grateful for who we are.”

She closed the lid on the box, slipped it into her pocket. She came around the table, put her arms around him. “I am. Grateful. God. I want to watch a vid where lots of stuff blows up, and eat popcorn, drink a lot of wine…”

There is more, but I’m running out of space and you get the point. In its entirety, the scene continues for several pages without direct attribution. (Read the book, by the way, it’s an excellent ride.) Robb uses no traditional tags but never confuses the reader as to who is saying what.  Instead, she reveals emotion, relationship, etc., by what the characters do, how they react to each other, their words, even how they handle various objects in the room. The dialogue moves forward naturally and smoothly, creating a bitter-sweet mood, which is exactly what Robb is going for. Adding more characters can make this method more challenging, but not impossible. This is a very effective form of tagging and one of my favorites.

It’s hard to go too far wrong with a simple, “said.” “He”, “she”, “Joe”, “Sue” and “the giant lizard” all go equally well with “said.” Essentially, and regardless of the number, gender and species of the characters, the great advantage of “said” lies in its ability to disappear into the dialogic landscape, offering the necessary hint that the speaker has changed without intruding more than a thumb nail’s thickness into the reader’s consciousness. It provides swift, clean exchanges that depend almost solely on the words of the speaker. Sadly, Said’s great advantage is also its greatest disadvantage – it is a neutral verb that offers nothing beyond the mere denotation of speaker identity. “Said” alone gives no clue as to voice quality, tone, mood or emotion. And, of course, the oft repeated adjuration not to overuse adverbs; “gently”, “forcefully”, “harshly”, “lovingly”, and the like, makes conveying the requisite emotional baggage even more challenging. Though it is true that, in most cases the expert author is amply able to meet the test with the tools of word choice, gesture and movement, in a conversation during which the emotional temperature undergoes sudden, significant or erratic change, some authors feel that the simple “said” is a little too simple.

"Tagging" doesn't have to mean "defacing."

Fair warning: Most writing instructors warn against heavy use, some of them against any use, of what I call emotitags. I am more ambivalent on the subject. If you’ve ever engaged in verbal battle, you know that there are times when one cannot say that anything has been “said.” Nevertheless, clear, emotion charged communication has definitely taken place. Such instances also occur in literature. When they do, the most direct method of accurately depicting the emotional content of the exchange might be an emotitag. Instead of simply saying, a character may occasionally growl, cry, mutter, whisper or wail, either with or without words. While you don’t want to use this kind of tag very often, thereby running the risk of reader fatigue or even (gasp) the dreaded eye roll, you may find the judiciously placed emotitag useful. This type of tag not only asserts emotional content but can add characterization when combined with skillfully constructed dialogue.

Used wisely, the right tag does far more than identify. It can speed or slow the pace of dialogue, deepen characterization, add setting, change mood, define emotion, or even heighten or decrease tension. Using a mixture will also add depth and texture to your piece, so long as you don’t go overboard and irritate your reader with hyperbolic angst. So, experiment, be bold, be wise in your use of spray paint. Write well and happy tagging.


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