Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Tag--You're It ~Tanya Hanson

I’m ever grateful for the colleague years ago who pointed me to an RWA chapter. Not that I didn't know
writing already, but teaching high school composition is a tad different from writing romance.

Mostly because fiction needs dialogue.

During one RWA chapter session early on, the speaker handed out an entire 8-11 sheet filled with speech tags, those little words that help the reader along during characters’ conversations. The alphabetical list included a million verbs like asked, answered. Anticipated. Articulated...affirmed, begged, bantered.
Chastised, chorused...demanded, dared. Remarked, recited, rebuked...said, stammered, spoke.

You get the picture.

My "first" best editor alerted me that the best tags to use are the simple ones: said, asked.

Well, I have fought for a “drawled” or two since my heroes are usually cowboys. But I do want to stave off too many he said/she saids while keeping clarity. Of course I know full well we need tags to identify the speaker, to keep the reader from getting confused, and to break up long sections. But...

...Most people don’t stand on a stage reciting Shakespearean monologues. They are doing something while they talk to somebody else. They’re driving around town. Emptying the dishwasher, chopping herbs. Even sitting at a table, they’re drinking tea or picking at a finger nail, maybe shuffling their feet. So why not use these physical actions as clues to teach more about our characters and balance out all the said’s and asked’s?

One thing, when a character’s spoken query is clearly punctuated with a question mark, I may not need to use another “asked”. What if the character scratches her head, or wrinkles her forehead instead?
And maybe we can short-cut sometimes. It might work using “He grimaced.” Instead of ...” he said with a grimace.

I personally want to avoid so-called “speech tags” that clearly are actions in themselves with nothing to do with talking. Like grimaced. Belched, laughed, wept. Nodded, sighed. Let’s hear a burp, wipe away tears.

Nope. “I’m so full I could burst,” he belched.

Better: “I’m so full I could burst.” He belched...

She nodded can stand alone, without being punctuated as a speech tag.

“I understand,” she nodded. Nope.

“I understand.” She nodded.

Yup. Run with those possibilities in your own style.

And I've got a pet peeve with “he lied.” Sorry, but that’s the lazy way of informing or reminding a reader of a character’s dishonesty. Let the reader see his face reddening, how he can’t look anyone in the eye.

Oh, and I grind my teeth at animal sounds like She chirped. He barked; she hissed. He roared, she growled. He snarled, she howled.

(Okay, I admit a good hiss can work but puh-leeze, have the S sound in the dialogue!) “I hate you,” she hissed does not work. “You’re a scandalous snob,” she hissed...Yeah.

Of course I use said and asked. And I know she whispered has as much potential as she said softly. But balancing a speech tag with action can grant us writers some variety and invite our readers right into the moment.

What are some versions you can think of for:

“I didn't mean it. It wasn't my fault.....” he said, looking guilty.



A native Californian, Tanya Hanson lives with her firefighter husband on the central coast where they enjoy traveling, good health, and two little grandsons. An award-winning author of both inspirational and secular western romance, she recently released Seeing Daylight, the seventh book in her Hearts Crossing Ranch series featuring the eight siblings of a Colorado ranching family.




 A beautiful attorney widowed by a foolhardy man...a successful builder vanquishing guilt over his wife's death. Can they rebuild faith and find love enough to give each other and their kids a happy home together?

35 comments:

  1. I'm definitely a fan of action tags over speech tags, but I ALWAYS struggle over when to use the comma versus the period. Great examples, Tanya! Thanks!

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  2. Hi Dora, you are so kindly welcome! I've got the grandbaby today and it'll be a busy one! See ya soon.

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  3. I like to use action tags, mix it up a bit, because as you mentioned they do give the reader some idea of what is going on in the characters head. Plus, I get bored with using said. ; )

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  4. Hi Robena, I hear ya totally. And I think it keeps us writers creative...thinking if new ways to show more about our characters. Thanks for stopping by today! Xo

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  5. Tanya, I am so with you! As a freelance editor, I often explain these same things to writers. I keep telling them to let the "?" do its job. ;-)

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    1. Oh I know, Dawn. And it take fewer words, too, and is so much more dynamic! Thanks for the post.

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  6. Remember the original Nancy Drew series? The stories were filled with overdone tags and adverbs and I copied every one of them for the book I wrote in fifth grade (I admit blushingly)..I thought that was how you were supposed to write.

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    1. Oh Margaret, I remember my own writing so full of overwrought prose and verbiage. Sheesh. My first book is a wreck. I know everything you mentioned was The Big Requirement in creative writing assignments in junior high, that's for sure. Then I found Thoreau: simplify, simplify. (Not that he did in his writings LOL.) Oh ,good old Nancy. I loved those books, too. xo

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  7. Tanya, you hit on a pet peeve of mine. I much prefer action or internal dialogue instead of a speech tag. Great post.

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    1. Thanks Caroline. Those actions so keep us in the moment of the story and the internal dialogue inside our character's head.. Especially when they are disagreeing with what somebody else is saying bu can't verbalize it. Speech tags can be very lazy ways of communication with readers. Thanks for the post..

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  8. Great post, Tanya! My only pet peeve is when I'm uncertain who is talking. In a back-and-forth between two characters I know that it's obvious, but after an exchange of 4 sentences, a simple 'he said' can help orient me (without making me go back and re-read the passage). But I agree, action tags are a more effective use of scene building.

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    1. I know what you mean, Kristy. Sometimes a said is totally necessary. I just don't like seeing so many of them I anticipate the next one like like ...water drops that drive one nuts. Xo

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  9. My challenge, (well, I have many, when it comes to writing), is dialogue involving more than 2 speakers. When it's just hero & heroine, I can usually just let 'er rip, and feel confident the lines themselves distinguish the speaker. But a three-way always trips me up, (conversational or otherwise). ;)

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  10. Sam, I had the biggest challenge ever in my upcoming book with Two males and Two females in the mix. Sheesh. My editor and I really scratched our heads over that group, but we finally got it. I hope LOL. Thanks so much for the post. Your writing is awesome, BTW. Xox

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  11. I'm a fan of action tags too, they can tell us much more about the character through their body language. And I agree with Kristy a simple 'he said' is sometimes all that's called for.
    I had to laugh about the use of 'hiss' in a sentence with no 's' words. My editor nailed me on that. I should have read this article first.

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    1. LOL, Marlowe. ..I judged a contest entry a while back and the hero barked out his replies. I kept thinking of a Labrador retriever, not a hottie sheriff. Thanks for the post today!

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  12. I've loosened up a little on the "he said/she said" and use it on occasion, but I'd rather use an action beat or internal thought or (ta! da!) nothing, as long as it's clear who is talking.

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  13. Indeed, Sandra. Most authors keep it pretty clear who's talking so the action tags let us know more about the characters or even the setting, but of course said and asked do have their moments. Thanks for stopping by!

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  14. I feel more involved in the story when action takes the place of all those tags. An excellent reminder, Tanya.

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    1. Hi Sarah, thanks so much for the kind words and the time you took to post today! I love writers helping each other. Xo

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  15. I hear the whole thing play out so dialogue the first writing is nothing but dialogue. Then, before I start the next scene, I go back and sprinkle in action or an occasional tag so we don't lose track of who's talking.

    But I try not to get carried away with any one technique or rule, because it always shows. The first time I noticed this was with smells. As I was reading a published, I surmised that the author's critique group and hollered at her to use the five senses--it was obvious. So since then I try to mix it all up.

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    1. Hi, Jacquie , I don't like the word smells, even with the five senses thing. . Smell always evokes something yucky to me. I don't mind a "scent" lingering bit I don't think I use smell. And odor always reminds me of something I pleasant...delicious odors of Thanksgiving dinner, nah, doesn't work for me. Thanks for the helpful post. Xo

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  16. Why is something so simple, so difficult? Thanks for the very helpful examples. Best of success with See Daylight!
    Between The Pages

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    1. Hi Lynda, thanks so much for your good wishes! I so appreciate them. And more than that, thanks for the comment!

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  17. Great post, Tanyan. Action tags give a much clearer picture and I usually stick to 'said' or 'answered' or 'replied' when I need a dialogue tag. However, I do find myself guilty of committing some of those pet peeves like 'she hissed.' Rules are meant to be broken :-D

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    1. Hi Veronica , oh, I do love a good hiss. Such a good tag for somebody supercilious! Thanks, my friend, for the post. Xo

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  18. Food for thought. Used correctly action tags are gold, over or misused slow the story. Enjoyed the post. Doris

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    1. Hi Doris, you are so right! Thanks for posting .nothing worse than saggy, slow anything.

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  19. An excellent discourse on a knotty problem. Thank you

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    1. Hi Susan, hope to untangle it a bit....I've got a great editor with an amazing set of eyes. Thanks for stopping by.

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  20. Great post, Tanya! Dialogue tags are something all authors struggle with, but I try to use action word as much as I can!

    Leigh

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    1. Hi Leigh, I know, it's so much easier to envision something happening. Thanks for stoping by! Xoxox

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  21. I loved the post, Tanya! With me, I tend to put in an action of some kind instead of a tag. I have a lot of conversation in my stories and it tends to clutter up with all the saids.

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  22. Once I was turned on to the idea of using action instead of tags, I clicked my heels and gave a jump for joy. I think it really enhances the work to get that action doing the tag work. Thanks for the post!

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  23. "Hear, hear!" I exclaimed.

    Dialogue tags versus action tags are my most hated grammar moments. Action tags seem so much easier to me that I'll default to them whenever possible. I have to disagree with the animal sounds. I like an occasional growl from a hero when appropriate.

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