Beat The Tags Out Of Your Story

As I’ve done more critiquing and editing, I’ve noticed certain trends creeping up repeatedly across a variety of texts and from a large handful of different authors. If they happen often enough, they become irritating – not bad enough to anger, but just enough to itch. You know, like that thing at the back of your shirt that has the washing instructions on it and flips out of your collar occasionally. Some shirts have especially grating ones and you have to cut them out. What are those called again?

photo Oh, right. Tags.

Of course, since we’re discussing narrative structure, we’re talking about speech tags – he said, she asked, he whispered, etc. Though I don’t see a coincidence in speech tags and shirt tags bearing the same name.

You’ve probably guessed by now that I lean anti-tag in my writing. In fact, as a personal challenge, I strove for zero tags in a short story I entered into a contest (read it here and find a tag. I dare you.)

I wrote about tags a bit in this post about dialogue. There, I included this example of egregious tag overuse:

“I thought you’d be home for dinner,” Sandy said.

“I didn’t say that,” Bill responded.

“So where were you?” she asked.

“Out,” he said.

Now, the same dialogue, sans tags:

Sandy slammed the empty plate onto the table lit by the drippy remains of the candles. “I thought you’d be home for dinner.”

Bill stood sheltered by the darkness of the living room. “I didn’t say that.”

“So where were you?” Her voice shook as tears stole her words.

“Out.” He stomped up the stairs.

The second example uses action beats to show who’s speaking. Beats are the glorious alternative to speech tags. Not only do they do the same job, they enrich the story by adding setting or mood. Did you notice the characters say the exact same words in both examples?

Which one told a better story?

A couple of writers I’ve worked with said they don’t know how to write effective beats. Others fall into comfortable ones like “she looked and him” or “he sighed” – not judging here, by the way. I’m totally guilty of using these.

So where do interesting beats come from?

Stories don’t happen in a vacuum. The characters have to be somewhere. Chances are, they are doing something. Weave whatever they’re doing into the dialogue. When The Fourth Descendant was still with my critique group, one scene my CPs loved involved two characters preparing dinner as they had a conversation.

In the YA urban fantasy book currently with beta readers, this conversation occurs while my shapeshifting characters are flying.

As she glided a few feet off the ground, Drake lowered enough to get her attention. “Erica!”

She looked up, then lifted to Drake’s level. “Isn’t this amazing?”

“What? Flying?”

She nodded and flapped her wings, which rivaled Terry’s in their span. Drake didn’t recognize her as a creature he’d seen and guessed that like Terry, she was something prehistoric.

“You’ve never flown before?”

She shook her head. “I’ve been hiding at the school. Since my family died. I didn’t know where else to go. Then I started changing and figured…” She stared at him, as if she hoped he’d finish her sentence.

“You figured you were the only one like you.”

“Right.” She banked slightly from side to side, weaving through the air. “Was it like that for you?”

Notice that sometimes, the dialogue carries just fine without a beat or a tag. This gives your dialogue a faster pace and more punch, if needed.

Also notice that throughout this post, I’ve discussed using tags or beats, not both.

“I don’t want to go to school today,” he said as he poured milk over his cereal.

My feeling is the tag is redundant in one hundred percent of these cases. If he’s pouring the milk, he obviously said the thing.

“I don’t want to go to school today.” He poured milk over his cereal.

If you’re in severe word cut mode, as many writers in the editing stage are, you save three words by going with the straight beat. Of course, this structure can also be a stylistic choice. But maybe ask yourself if the unnecessary tags are worth the added words.

And so you don’t think I’m Writer Von Holier Than Thou in my practice, as I was writing this post, one of my CPs dinged me on about four tags in my chapter currently up for review. Let’s call those filler words I used while drafting. Yeah. That’s what they are. *clears throat*

So that’s the beat on tags. What’s your feeling about them? Are you pro-tag or anti-tag?

13 thoughts on “Beat The Tags Out Of Your Story

  1. Pingback: Say What? Some Words About Dialogue, That’s What | Allison Maruska

  2. I vote for a mixture of tags and beats. The “glossing over” thing is important. Because “said” and “asked” tags disappear from the reader’s mind, it means he/she is hearing the dialogue as if in a movie or real life. The author isn’t intruding at all. But also, it adds variety.

    So, I’m cutting down on tags, but not eliminating them.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jenny shook her head. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
    Egad, my characters shake their heads all the time… A side effect of removing “he said,” “she said” from my writing. Exchanging dialogue tags for action beats is definitely hard at first, but well worthwhile! Great post.


    • Thanks, and sorry so late in replying. I found your comment buried in the “needs to be approved” folder in my admin panel. Let’s blame WP. 🙂
      Yep, it’s definitely hard at first, especially in avoiding the same beats. Harder than I thought it would be!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I always say that when you use words like he said and she said, you are adding words but not adding content; you aren’t advancing your story. Most writers don’t bite at that. But explaining that by adding words that aren’t adding content, you are DILUTING your story, and suddenly everybody is paying attention. By removing the dialog tags and adding in a small action (a beat, as you noted) we get more story from the same or fewer words, a win win.

    When we read Dick Jane and Sally as kids, or as my daughter reads the Biscuit books, he said and she said are fine. Later, we evolve past them. (And, hopefully, past Biscuit – but never past Green Eggs And Ham, I hope!)

    Create a scene with five people speaking – that happens all the time in real life, at meetings or at a party – and tags start to become useless. Repeating each person’s name is equally tiresome. Like anything else, we figure out a way to make it work. Then our writer friends will tell us how good a job we did, and maybe offer some tips.

    And on occasion, a simple tag does the job and nobody cares. Occasionally – as in, not very often, for my tastes.

    Basically, do what ya gotta do to get the scene written. For me that means using lots of plug-in beats that I use over and over, with the intention of replacing them later with something along the lines of a more meaningful and less repetitive synonym for “she looked and him” or “he sighed.” (You for got he smiled.)

    They’re only crutches if you don’t catch them. Until then, they’re placeholders for your pending writerly eloquence. Make a list of them and check your MS using the Find feature. After a while, you’ll see yourself doing it and change your habits.

    If I can stop using dialog tags ANYBODY can.

    As for my crutch words? Well… my characters smile a lot. Nothing wrong with that.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve heard a number of successfull authors argue both sides of this. The one that really struck a cord with me was that the reader usually glossy over the tags and doesn’t even notice them. But I absolutely agree with your point. If you’re using them to the point where they become noticeable (aka irritating) then you need to dial it back. Great post!


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