To Tag or not

Before I became a child who watched television, I was familiar with lines of speech. Both my parents were keen am-drams. I was holding a script, hearing them say their lines, as soon as I could read. As an adult, I’m a great film goer. I love the instant action, the drama which can be created by words. I’ve just re-watched the film of Gone with the Wind. Now there’s a book and film where the words come quick and fast, expressing love, loathing, fear, envy ….

I’ve been having an interesting discussion with my editor about tagging. Apparently I don’t do enough of it. No, I don’t mean tying those irritating labels on suitcases or stuff in store, I mean the use of ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.  Just that. He said. Or she said. I agree with him that I try to avoid writing those two little words. I find those irritating as well. If it wasn’t a cliché, I’d even prefer ‘she shrugged.’ But it is, so I rarely write that. If at all.

I went to my current WIP, to find exactly what I do write and low and behold my first line opens with, ‘My mother said,…’ However, near to the bottom of the page I write, ‘No one round here knows what a virgin is.’ She lowers her voice, ‘Except you.’ In writing terms, that use of a full sentence rather than ‘she said’, is called Attributing through action. I’ve been told that I do that a lot. The question is, is that a bad thing to do or not?

From the library of books here (I am not at home but many of the books are mine) I look to see what my favourite authors do, tag or attribute by action.

Starting with a classic (as far back in literature as I’m prepared to go) I open EM Forster’s A Room with a View. At random, a page full of dialogue. The first line of speech is tagged: ‘….’ said Freddy in awestruck tones. Definitely not my style. Several lines of conversation un-attributed then, ‘…’ the clergyman continued. IMHO to be used rarely. Followed by 19 lines of conversation, none attributed but one which reads ‘…’ said Freddy, taking up a book. A mixture of tagging and attributing by action.

A writer whose work I love but who is no longer on this earth is Helen Dunmore. Her novel Burning Bright, Chapter Four, begins with conversation. In 28 lines of speech,only 2 are tagged.

A successful contemporary writer is Maggie O’Farrell. I open her novel This Must Be The Place. Generally less conversation here but a quick search finds little plain tagging. Later, O’Farrell writes, ‘…’ Marithe sobs into her mother’s sweater.’ And ‘…’ I search his face to try and understand. Ok there are some ‘he is saying’ and ‘he says’ but these words do not dominate the pages of conversation. The word interrupts catches my eye more than once. I’d use that sparsely.    

Finally I go to the web site of the magazine Wasafiri and read a featured short story. In the whole piece there is only one use of simple tagging. In all other places, where the writer thinks this necessary, she uses attribution through action.

It’s been an interesting exercise and yes, I admit I looked for the passages of speech which proved my point, that simple tagging is often not enough. I conclude that I should continue to write as I do, at the same time keeping a careful lookout for scenes where additional tagging will make the lines clearer for the reader to follow.




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