Monday, May 9, 2011

Tag Line Repair

Dialogue in fiction is usually a given. It adds personality and moves action forward. A vibrant exchange between key players can make a boring scene great. 

Tag lines, though not always necessary, help the reader keep things straight. I've seen short ones; I've seen long ones. And I'm curious, what's your opinion about long tag lines? Consider the following example:

“Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl?” inquired big, tall, handsome Ned of Walter, Ned’s skinny, awkward-looking dining partner at Cattle City Steakhouse.

I am not a fan of long tag lines. I think that they can be cumbersome and intrusive. When I read, I don't want to get tangled up in them. There are other ways to add important info other than stuff it into a tag line. What do you think? How would you repair this tag line?

I'm always on the lookout for dialogue pointers. Author Nancy Kress offers her thoughts on using adverbs in her article, Who Said That?  She also addresses pacing and ways to avoid tag lines altogether. Todd Stone offers further insight in How to Edit Dialogue. 

Do you write fiction? Non-fiction? Even if you write non-fiction, writing dialogue can be a good opportunity to stretch the imagination and skills. So, tell me, how would you repair this? 

“Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl?” inquired big, tall, handsome Ned of Walter, Ned’s skinny, awkward-looking dining partner at Cattle City Steakhouse.

Rescue the reader from a lousy rendition of what's happening at the Cattle City Steakhouse. Repair this, please! :)



  1. Hello Karen,

    The problem at the moment is you're 'telling' all the details so they're stacked on top of each other in a list. You have to break it down into smaller, nmore effective pieces, which will make it much longer but far more effective.

    I would suggest keeping the dialogue tag simple, just: inquired Ned.

    Everything else should be shown through action. They're dining partners? Show them eating.
    He's skinny? show Walt picking at his food and Ned thinking no wonder there's no skin on his bones.
    He's awkward? Have him stare down at his plate and mumble into his napkin.
    He's handsome? Show the waitresses reaction to Ned when he gives her a wink, etc.

    Hope that helps.
    Moody Writing

  2. "Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl?" Ned plunked down on my couch and kicked up his dirty work boots onto my coffee table. It didn't matter how handsome the guy was - he was a complete jerk.

    I think both long and short tags are needed. So funny you posted on this b/c I already have mine written for Wednesday! And guess what it's about? :)

  3. "Ned said, turning to Walter."
    Yeah, I'm trying to learn to keep it simple. Dialog tags are not my strong suit.

  4. Hmm...I would change the dialogue tag to an action beat and get rid of all that telling description and show how awkward or lanky instead.

  5. I think it depends on the approach of the narrative, on the writer's presentation. Some styles could use longer tag lines and it'd be okay. Still, I think the general rule is (and maybe should be) to keep it simple. Right? There are so many ways in which less is more.

    I would just make sure the reader got a clear description of Ned and Walter without using this space just beyond the dialogue. I'd fill in around it, flesh it out more.

  6. Like Laura above, I like to show my characters through what they do. I often do that throughout dialogue.
    ~ Wendy

  7. Mood,
    Thanks so much for your input! I was thinking along those lines. This tag line is an example I use for my teen students as a "before" version. I get tangled up just thinking about it! lol :)

    I like this! Thanks for your two cents. :) Looking forward to your Wednesday post! Actually wrote it down so I'll remember to get over there!

    Yeah, I think that is one of the reasons I prefer simple ones. They aren't something that just comes out as naturally for me when I write.

    I like that, and that was what I was thinking if it were expanded. Since this isn't a real story, just an example, I hadn't really fleshed it out otherwise.

    Good point! When you break it down, there are many styles that dictate the handling of something like this. I think I still prefer simpler like you. Not stilted, just unobtrusive.

    I like making that kind of thing work for me - as far as showing like you said. I know I enjoy a book much more that way!

    Thanks all, for your input!

  8. Sounds like I want no part of the "Cattle City Steakhouse." :)

    Great points Karen and I hope you had a great Mother's Day.
    Jules @ Trying To Get Over The Rainbow

  9. Ugh, my dialogue tags have been long and messy lately. I've been removing a ton of them.

  10. Read the whole post, and all the comments, and I am just in awe of you all. I've been trying to write fiction. It's not a pretty piece of paper thus far. Thanks for the tips. I will press on.
    And good luck with the Steakhouse, and the Superbowl. ;)

  11. Jules,
    I'm thinking you may be right, or at least until the dust settles and we have a better tag line! In the meantime, I'm opting for the dollar menu at McDonald's!

    I fight them too, and am working to untangle the ones I don't like. Working to show more action otherwise and in the right places. :)

    Yes, press on! And for the record, I am not an expert at this, just working to improve my skills and not scare anyone away with my fiction!

    Happy Monday,

  12. I like short tags and no tags when I can get away with it!

  13. Hi Karen -

    I limit tags to "said" or nothing at all. All the other elements can be shown through the character's actions or thoughts.

    Susan :)

  14. "Who's going to win the Super Bowl?" Ned cut his steak and wondered Why does Walter just order a large salad? Could that be why he looks like skin and bone?

    I like the action beats. The tags get tiring for me.

  15. I don't like much tag line at all with dialogue, because it usually tells rather than shows. Also, too many adjectives distract. I'd rather discover all that information in ripples, rather than a splash.

  16. I'd leave a little to the imagination and expound on it later. sandie

  17. Tana,
    I'm with you! Give me short ones, none, or a good bit of wraparound action, handled well of course!

    Susan R.,
    You've got a current WIP to practice on, don't you? :D

    Me too. I think alot depends on how the rest is handled too. Your suggestion is a good one. :)

    Yes, and I think that's one thing that bugs me about them. I like that - ripples instead of a splash. Good one!

    Yes, I'm on your team. :) Will meet you at the steakhouse to discuss it! lol


  18. Hi Karen .. I like things to be as natural and simple as possible - they've got to ring true .. I can 'see' Laura' characters!

    Great thoughts and interesting to read about .. cheers Hilary

  19. “Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl,” Ned asked.

  20. I'm not a fan of tags and it's usually something I end up fixing a lot in the second draft! Ugh...

  21. Like most of the other commenters, I think this tag is heavy and laden with description that goes elsewhere in the story. Less is more when it comes to tag lines. Elmore Leonard, to me, is a master of the tagline. He manages to always use "said" and then accompany it with just the right amount of character attitude.

  22. Hope you had a wonderful weekend and all is going well for this week! Hugs friend!!! :O)

  23. In my current WIP I'm trying to eliminate tags altogether, (not quite) and use sense of place and active voice instead. It's still a work in progress.

    ie. John laid a hand on the back of the wooden chair. "Hey, if you don't want to sit down, that's cool." He picked the chair up and threw it across the room. "It's not particularly comfortable anyway."

  24. Hey Karen,
    Wow! Talk about fun and confusing at the same time:) I guess you never realize how much goes into writing.
    I wanted to stop by and let you know you can definitely enter any of the giveaways on my blog. Normally I only stop a winner when they have won several times in a month. Doesn't normally happen:)
    Take care!

  25. Hillary,
    Yes, ringing true - good point! I think I can see her too. :)

    Well said there. You're hired. :P

    Me too. Aiming to get batter at it, as I am sure you are too. :)

    Yes, you are right, I'm thinking. Will have to check out Leonard. Thanks for the heads up!

    I did, thanks! Hope you did too. :) Wishing you a great week.

    I like that, and I like your example. Thanks!

    Thanks for letting me know, Charity! Wanted you to know I stopped by but didn't want to look greedy!


  26. I like short tags and if I can get away with it no tags at all. Very long tags are very distracting.

  27. I find longer tags awkward and interrupting. They can sometimes take you out of the moment and into the fact that, oh, hey, I'm READING. I think most tag lines can be done as separate sentences that do not interfere with the story...


  28. I prefer action beats, too. They are great for showing a lot!!

  29. Rachna,
    Yes, distracting is a good word for it. I try to keep them out when I can.

    It's nice to meet you! I know, I don't want to be tripped up while reading either.

    Me too, and I think that's the general feeling here. Appreciate your input!


  30. I love dialogue, but dislike long tag lines. They distract from the flow of the scene.

    Thanks for this post and the links. I printed out the article from RD to refer to later.


  31. If it's well done, I probably won't care but in this case, there's too many adjectives, imo, which makes the second part of the sentence awkward. :-)
    I'm going to check out those links. Thanks!

  32. Eileen,
    They are! The way to go, I'm thinking! :)

    Exactly. Sort of like a fly buzzing around your head!

    I know, it's very awkward. A "before" version for sure.

    Thanks for the input,

  33. I agree. They should be kept short and to the point. Great post.

  34. Short ones are better...but long are okay, as long as it makes sense. That example is just WAY too wordy. It feels like you're running out of breath when you read it. Here's my repair:

    Ned looked at Walter “Who's your pick to win the Super Bowl?” he asked. They were having dinner at Cattle City Steakhouse. Big, tall Ned was digging into a twenty-ounce steak while skinny, awkward-looking Walter was pushing a small sirloin around his plate.

  35. Clarissa,
    Thanks a bunch! And thanks for weighing in. I appreciate it!

    Much better! I always like it when the action is surrounding, not jammed into the tag line.


  36. Hi Karen! I've seen you on so many writer friends' blogs that I decided to come introduce myself. :)

    I think short tags are most effective. For your example, the tag could be changed to, "Ned asked". Then the physical characteristics of both people could be shown naturally through action, etc.

    Great blog! Look forward to visiting again. :)

  37. Jen,
    Totally with you. Hope the article helps!

    Nice to meet you! I've seen your name around too; glad you stopped by. Thanks for following too!


  38. This is great, and I appreciate the Nancy Kress piece, too. I like the notion that a good tag won't be noticed at all... and that a bad one certainly will be! Also, Poor Ned :)

  39. Jillian,
    Thank you! Thanks too, for stopping by. It was great to meet you at the workshop Saturday. Best wishes with your writing!


Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts. Have a blessed day!