Illusions of Dialogue: The Vanishing Tag

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This is the lesson I have heard when it comes to dialogue: Don’t tag too often. Don’t get too specific with your tag.

First, let’s define tag. A tag is very simple. He said is a tag. We have all seen them a million times. Remember that. We will get back to that.

Tags are a necessary evil, and often in books, they are used wrong. We writers, when we decide it is time for a tag, we think said is too boring, or not descriptive enough, so we add an -ly.

“This is an adverb and we writers, as a tribe, seem to be in love with them,” he said doggedly. “They don’t love us back.”

When I wrote the sentence above, the thing you took away from it was the word doggedly. That is the main point you retrieved from the dialogue. But it is not only -ly  we need to burn to the ground.

“Let’s look at the -ed as well,” he said, annoyed.

Same thing. Still jumping in asserting itself, still obnoxious, still distracting.

Every successful writer will tell you not to use them, but rarely are we told why. The reason we need to leave adverb out is because it calls attention to itself. An adverb is obnoxious. It interrupts everything it is attached to. It steps into the sentence and jumps up saying “Look at me! I’m here and ready to bear.” They draw away attention from the real drama of the story: the words being spoken. What we need is a tag that is chilled out.

I have three dogs. One is named Jordai. He is pretty cool. Always patient, always calm, always a gentleman. When food is brought out, he will sit and wait. When a treat is being given, he is in the back, letting the other dogs go first. He is happy and laid back most all the time. He is a said.

Sadie is an adverb. She is a rottie, and when it is time for a treat, she will shove every other dog out of the way and stick her nose in. If Jordai is at the back door and we go to let him out, she will shove him out of the way and leave the house first. This is partially because she is the alpha of the other dogs, but largely because she is rude. This is the way an adverb, or any other obnoxious tag, asserts itself.

A good piece of dialogue will always get its point across without the help of an adverb.

The fun thing about a tag is that a good one vanishes immediately. It is an illusion, nothing more. Now let’s look at this piece of dialogue I wrote:

“You are Peter Redfist?” he asked.
“I am,” Peter said.
“My father told me you were to be my king,” the boy said. “He told me I would serve you as your warrior and commander, said you would treat me with honor and power.”

Now this is the beauty of a vanishing tag. When readers see he said, she said, he asked, and she asked, they ignore them. Just as quickly as they come, they are gone. These tags are so common, so everyday, that as soon as they appear, they are dismissed.

Adverbs don’t do that. Adverbs are remembered. So when you use an adverb, you are breaking your dialogue apart and taking the reader away from it, then shoving them back in. A good piece of dialogue does not need a description word because the tone of voice, the mood of the speaker and the inflection are all betrayed by the words said, not the tag.

Now without going back and reading the last sample, try to remember what was said. Most likely, you can. Now try to remember where the tags were. Try to remember, as if you had to place them back, where the words the boy said were in the sentence. Most likely, you cannot. The words vanished as soon as you read them. We have all seen these words a million times, so we don’t even notice them anymore.

With the vanishing tag, we can inform the reader who is speaking without breaking in on the sentence at all. Everyone understands who has spoken without being dragged out of the scene.

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