Tags and Tag Lines

In today’s Journal

* Quote of the Day
* Tags
* Tag Lines
* Of Interest

Quote of the Day

“[S]creenwriting is work, it’s a chore, you’re writing for other people and rewriting constantly, while I don’t consider novel writing work at all.” Elmore Leonard


You know that the Journal archive is free, and you also know it’s in PDF format (so it can be printed out) and that it’s searchable. You can download the archive, year by year, at https://hestanbrough.com/the-daily-journal-archives/.

But sometimes we’re at a loss for the right search term. That’s where tags can come in handy.

At the bottom of (almost) every Journal post going way back to 2014, there are tags. If you click on one of those tags, all the posts that include that tag will automatically pop up.

At the very worst, you can use the list of tags as recommended search terms, which you can then type into the search box yourself.

Tag Lines

Of Elmore Leonard’s “10 Rules for Good Writing,” dialogue tag lines take up two of them:

3. Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

4. Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely.

I couldn’t agree more.

Often, especially newer writers, spurred on by horrible writing instructors who don’t have a clue what they’re talking about, will use words other than “said” to “spruce up” their writing, to make the tag line more interesting.

But the thing is, unlike the descriptive narrative, the tag line’s only purpose is to let the reader know, without intruding, which character is speaking.

So it should be bland. The reader should be able to read it, identify which character is speaking, and dive back into the story as if the tag line had never been there. The tag line that revolves around “said” accomplishes that.

Or put in another way, anything that draws attention to itself (“is interesting”) jerks the reader out of the story and is self-defeating, not only for the story but for the writer. Why would any writer want to pull the reader intentionally out of the story? Yet many do exactly that.

This ugly habit is so pervasive that several years ago I started keeping a list of verbs that do not indicate a form of utterance, yet were used for exactly that purpose.

A dialogue tag line consists of a noun or a pronoun plus a verb that indicates a form of utterance. The best such verb is “said.” The other verbs that indicate a form of utterance are these:

announced, ASKED, exclaimed, implored, mumbled, murmured, muttered, quipped, remarked, responded, SAID, screamed, stammered, stated, yelled, uttered, muttered, mumbled.

But you don’t really need “asked” since that sentence would be followed by a question mark, right? And of course, you don’t need a tag line at all if you’ve used a brief descriptive narrative to indicate some action by the character who then speaks. Most often those two elements would be included in the same paragraph:

Macy Marie came into the room. “What’re you two talking about?”

“She asked” or “Macy said” or any other tag line would be extra here and unnecessary. Because again, the tag line exists only to let the reader know which character is speaking. In this example, the brief descriptive narrative fulfilled that purpose, so a tag line is not necessary.

On the other hand, none of the following verbs (all of which I’ve seen used in tag lines) indicate a form of utterance:

accused, acknowledged, admonished, affirmed, amended, amplified, announced, answered, argued, assured, attacked, attempted, balked, beamed, blathered, blurted, blustered, bossed, brayed, broke in, brooded, brought up, bubbled, burlesqued, burst out, cajoled, called, called out, came back, cautioned, challenged, chastized, cheered, chided, chimed, chimed in, chirped, chirped in, choked, chorused, chuckled, clarified, coached, coaxed, commanded, commented, commiserated, complained, complimented, conceded, concluded, consoled, contributed, corrected, correcting, countered, cracked, criticized, cursed, cut in, defended, delivered, delved, digressed, denied, editorialized, ejaculated, encouraged, ended, enjoined, enlightened, enquired, enthused, eructated, evaded, exhaled, expostulated, extemporized, finished, fished, fly casted, followed, frowned, frowning, galloped on, gave, gave him, gave him back, gave out, giggled, got out, greeted, grinned, griped, gripped, groused, grumbled, gushed, harrumphed, hazarded, heaped on, hedged, helped out, huffed, identified, improvised, informed, instructed, interrupted, intoned, invited, jumped in, justified, kicked out, laughed, lectured, maintained, managed, modified, morosed, mouthed, nagged, nibbled, nitpicked, objected, offered, oozed, opened, opined, ordered, owned up, paddled back, persisted, piped in, piped up, placated, played back, pointed out, pontificated, pounced, pressed, prodded, promenaded on, prompted, pronounced, protested, protracted, pushed, put in, quavered, questioned, quavered, quipped, reasoned, reassured, recommended, reminded, reposted, resumed, retorted, returned, revealed, ridiculed, scolded, screeched, seconded, sentenced, shot, shreaked, shrilled, sighed, sleazed, smiled, smirked, snapped, sneered, snarled, snickered, sniffed, sobbed, spat, spat out, speculated, spewed, spoke up, spouted, squealed, started, started out, started out full throttle, stumbled, submitted, suggested, sulked, summarized, supplied, sussurrated, syruped out, talked on, teased, telegraphed, temporized, testified, threatened, tossed, touted, tried, trilled, trotted out, trumped, tumbled out, ventured, vocalized, voiced, volumed, volunteered, warbled, warned, waved, went on, worried.

And yes, I do add to the list as I encounter new misuses. If you’ve seen any others, please let me know so I may add them to the list.

And please please please don’t email me to say Famous Writer uses verbs like these in tag lines all the time, so it must be all right to do so. It isn’t, and Famous Writer’s stories would be vastly improved if s/he would stop that.

Years ago, during one of my live seminars, a woman actually asked why she should use quotation marks to indicate dialogue. “Cormac McCarthy doesn’t use them.”

She was unpersuaded by my argument that Cormac McCarthy was famous before he tried that particular stunt and that he did so in only one novel. She was also unpersuaded by the fact that literally MILLIONS of writers enclose probably BILLIONS (or more) passage of dialogue in quotation marks, whereas One Author did not in One Novel.

“Well,” she said, arms crossed firmly over her chest and a smug look on her face, “I think I’ll believe Cormac McCarthy over you.” Mind you, she hadn’t talked with the man. He hadn’t advised her not to use quotation marks.

Nor, I suspect, had she ever talked with or received advice from Norman Mailer, though if she ever read one of his books I suspect she would go forth believing misplaced modifiers are The thing to do.

All of that to say, as always, you do what you want.

Talk with you again soon.

Of Interest

See “Based on Elmore Leonard” at https://www.tcm.com/articles/Programming%20Article/021678/based-on-elmore-leonard.

See “The Draft” at https://killzoneblog.com/2022/10/the-draft.html. A cautionary tale inside a cautionary tale.

See “How Writers Fail (Part 9): They Quit” at https://www.thepassivevoice.com/how-writers-fail-part-9-they-quit/. You might want to click through to the OP on this one.

See “Timely & Inspired Social Media for Authors in November” at https://www.amarketingexpert.com/2022/10/13/timely-inspired-social-media-for-authors-in-november/.

See “An Attempt At Working With Angel” at https://deanwesleysmith.com/an-attempt-at-working-with-angel/. DWS and a cat.

The Numbers

The Journal…………………………………… 1160 words

Writing of The Stirchians (novel, tentative title)

Day 1…… 4106 words. Total words to date…… 4106
Day 2…… 3505 words. Total words to date…… 7611
Day 3…… 2392 words. Total words to date…… 10366
Day 4…… 3336 words. Total words to date…… 13339

Total fiction words for October……… 21541
Total fiction words for the year………… 141923
Total nonfiction words for October… 11360
Total nonfiction words for the year…… 164580
Total words for the year (fiction and this blog)…… 306503

Calendar Year 2022 Novels to Date…………………… 2
Calendar Year 2022 Novellas to Date……………… 0
Calendar Year 2022 Short Stories to Date… 0
Novels (since Oct 19, 2014)…………………………………… 68
Novellas (since Nov 1, 2015)………………………………… 8
Short stories (since Apr 15, 2014)………………… 217
Short story collections……………………………………………… 31

Disclaimer: In this Journal, I discuss various aspects of the writing craft. I also illustrate, with my own writing, a Zen-like non-process called Writing Into the Dark and what is possible when you trust the characters to tell the story that they, not you, are living. WITD also leads to greatly increase productivity and a rapid ascension along the learning curve because you get a great deal more Practice. This is not opinion. It is all numbers and facts.

9 thoughts on “Tags and Tag Lines”

    • Great one, Lisa! Absolutely. Not sure how I missed that one before. Another good one that I know I’ve seen before is “rattled on.”

  1. Didn’t realize he’d pulled the ‘no quotation marks’ stunt in only one novel, but I finished that one because of curiosity about that part of Mexican history (skimmed a LOT), and will never read a book by him again because of it. So he accomplished losing me forever as a potential reader. I never even looked at his other books – making things harder for the reader was enough of an insult once.

    He probably didn’t care – knew it would lose him some, possibly got more by being ‘experimental.’

    I won’t have written that many books in my lifetime; they are all very plain and standard in the basics. On purpose. The story isn’t – but I prefer not to be responsible for kicking a reader out of it.

    My embellishments – for those who might read – are in the way I record deep pov, and I hope that is completely transparent to the reader by a few scenes in. Not a single reader has complained. Yet.

  2. That list is a hoot. I haven’t read it all the way through, but will. I still use ‘asked’ sometimes but don’t think I’m guilty of any of the others now.
    …he admonished gravely… 😆😅🤣
    Regarding Dean’s post, my daughters used to get out of chores by claiming “COL” (Cat On Lap). One must not dislodge a sleeping cat.

  3. Elmore’s quote on screenwriting is all too true if you’re hired on assignment. You have to rewrite until the producers are happy (and you have to handle them tampering with it by giving you ‘notes’ ugh).
    Writing spec scripts, ones you write for fun and hope to sell, is a lot more freeing since you are in control up until its complete and sold. Sure, if the producer who buys it wants rewrites, they may ask you to do it, but often they have writers who they trust and hand it over to them.
    Why they just can’t leave it as it is, especially since they liked it enough to buy it as is, is a mystery I still don’t understand.

    • Hi Matt, Thanks. “Why they just can’t leave it as it is, especially since they liked it enough to buy it as is, is a mystery….” Yep. Same mystery why agents and publishers demand rewrites, most often without having read the submission they accepted.

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