This is the sixth in a series of articles about fiction writing aimed at young writers.
What is a tag in writing? It is when the author uses phrases like "he said" or "she said" added to dialog (the conversation between characters in a novel ). There are many ways to tag on to dialog, such as "he laughed", or "he angrily shouted" and these phrases are intended to help describe the feelings, emotions, or some action associated with the dialog. Most writer's use tags in their writing, and the better the writer, the more effective the use of the tags. They are used not only to help provide some description, but to help identify which character is talking as well. One of the major problems that beginning writer's face is how to vary the use of the tags so they are not too repetitive. You don't want to use "he said" every time as the tag to the dialog. At the same time, you want to keep your tags as simple as possible because you also don't want the tag to sound forced which can happen when you are stretching for something different.
One thing to keep in mind is that the tag should not disrupt the flow of the action or dialog, but help to move it forward. As I writer, I found that I was having a very difficult time with writing tags. Nothing I put down on paper ever sounded right to me; each time it felt forced and I felt like the words on the page were "stupid". As I struggled with this part of writing, the pile of crumpled pages grew higher and higher, because I just wasn't satisfied with my work.
Frustrated, I started to analyze where I was having a problem with the words on the page instead of continuing to try and put them down. I realized that it was the tags that were causing my issues and I decided that I would try and write without them. So, I started putting words down on the page again and all of a sudden, I actually liked what was there. Other writer's use of tags in a book don't bother me at all, but they bother me in my own writing. You might notice in Misfit McCabe that there is not one "he said" or "she said" in the entire book.
Is it easier to write with or without tags? Writing with tags is actually easier, because it allows you to take a shortcut to the description of the speaker's attitudes, thoughts, emotions, or actions. For example, if I used them in Misfit McCabe, it would have been easier to clarify who was speaking by putting a passage of dialog followed by a comma and "Sarah said with a laugh." It does take more work to ensure that your dialog is clear and to make sure that your reader will understand at all times who the speaker is when writing without tags. For me, writing without tags gives the work a "cleaner, crisper" feeling to the completed work. But, that is for me. What works best for you?
LK Gardner-Griffie is the author of young adult novel Misfit McCabe which is available now through Lulu.com , Barnes and Noble, and Amazon.com in paperback and as a Kindle edition at Amazon.com.