Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Speaker Tags: Like the Plague

Semi-recently, I stumbled upon the first draft I'd ever written.  I'll spare you the shameful and wince-worthy details, since there are some things you just shouldn't put people through, but among all its issues, my speaker tags were rampant.

    I'm not just talking about using tags other than "said" -- that's another post, and it has a lot of different facets.  (Though I had that problem, too.  When you use the word "queried" instead of ask in the attempt to change things up, you know things are bad.  But it's all in the past, right?)

   Nah, I'm talking about attaching speaking tags in general.  Especially when there's already an action tag in place.  Suzanne Collins is pretty much the queen of this -- I love The Hunger Games and its trilogy, I've made it painfully obvious and redundant in the past, but yeah.  She'll set an action tag, lay down the dialogue, and then -- no, no no.  A speaker tag.  And usually "I say" at that.  Eek.  Talk about pet peeves.

    But hey, like I said.  Suzanne Collins can do -- well, some wrong, but not a whole lot. 

    Besides avoiding my annoyance, cutting all unnecessary tags has another shining benefit: slashing the word count.  And if you're anything like me, Word Count is the enemy.  (Otherwise, you're lucky.  Word-by-word editing is a major pain.)

    Here are a couple examples of speaker tags not only done right, but kept at the barest minimum:

            Her horse was panicking; he took a deep breath and ran from cover, grabbing it by the bridle.  "Get down!"
    She jumped, and they both fell.  Then they were squirming into the bushes, lying flat, breathless.  Around them the forest roared with rain.
    "No.  You?"
    "Bruised.  Nothing serious."
    Claudia dragged soaked hair from her eyes.  "I can't believe this.  Sia would never order it.  Where are they?"

    This is from Sapphique, by Catherine Fisher.  I think it's excellent -- there's no tag at all from the first line to the last, and even then, it's action-tagging.  She doesn't spell out who says what, and she doesn't have to -- as a reader, it really isn't rocket science to figure out. 

    Here's one more example, from A Swiftly Tilting Planet by Madeleine L'Engle --

    Sandy paused, a handful of forks in his hand, to grin at their mother.  "Thanksgiving dinner is practically the only meal Mother cooks in the kitchen --"
    "--instead of out in the lab on her Bunsen burner," Dennys concluded.
    "After all, those Bunsen-burner stews did lead directly to the Nobel Prize.  We're really proud of you, Mother, although you and Father give us a heck of a lot to live up to."
    "Keeps our standards high." 

    Sure, this one uses more tags, but I still felt like it was a good example.  I'm not exactly loving the phrase "a handful of forks in his hand," but I still love how the twins are always interrupting each other, so I'll let it slide. 

    Okay, there it is.  Speaker tagging -- something better left in small doses.  What's your opinion?  Speaker tags or action tags?  I think a good mix of both is important to keep a natural-sounding balance; do you?


melissa said...

I'm totally guilty of this during first drafts. Unneeded dialogue tags are like a drug for me.

Imogen said...

I always have too many saids in my drafts. I'm definitely a fan of action tags. It makes the scene move, instead of being passive. But I think you're right. A mix of both is best. Oh, and I just read my very first draft too. It wasn't as bad as I remembered it being.

Jenna said...

Melissa -- me too. It's pretty horrible. But the more times I have to go through and correct that same type of mistake, the more I seem to avoid making that mistake in current drafts. So maybe there's hope.

Imogen -- ha, I actually have the opposite problem. I tend to throw in all sorts of ridiculous alternatives to said, which I've read I'm not actually supposed to do. But it's great that your first draft turned out well! I don't even like to think of mine.

The Story Queen said...

Yeah, I'm guilty as well. I don't generally have a problem with speaker tags - it's when they start to drag down something that's meant to be fast-paced and action-oriented that it starts to bug me. Interesting post! I'm kind of scared to go look at my first drafts..

Rachelle said...

Guilty on all counts. That is what second (and third and fifteenth) drafts were made for. :)

I agree with you, Jenna. When there is a balance between beats and tags and nothing at all (as in the first example), it is time to cheer!

Jenna said...

The Story Queen -- good point with the timing of speaker tags. Thanks for pointing it out! And the good thing about first drafts is that they can only improve.

Rachelle -- I've gone through a ton of drafts, too. I never actually thought to research word count guidelines, so my count was waaay too high. So now Slasher -- my editing pen -- and I are getting to spend lots of quality time together. (:

Elisa said...

Hehe, I am not really a writer or any good with grammar (You can see that when you read my blog... lolz) But I can see how that could get annoying to an amazing writer such as you. ;)
Love your blog, your background is to kill for! haha!! xD
~Elisa :)

Jenna Blake Morris said...

Elisa -- haha, that's super nice of you, but nah. I just have a habit of pointing out what annoys me. (;

Love yours, too! So bright -- I love the pale colors, and clock towers are always awesome. Thanks!