Cat, Cottonwoods and Tags

Dickens (my cat) is whopping my shoulder with his tail.  One of his favorite spots is on the back of my chair while I tap on my MacBook.  He can keep an eye on things outside the window and, at the same time, remind me that it’s nearly time for his dinner.

We have arrived at lovely Riverside RV Park in Bayfield, Colorado, on an overcast but fairly warm, 70 degrees, afternoon.  I have an internet connection here!  Though the country silence of our friends’ land is preferable to the nearly constant woosh of nearby Highway 160.  We do have spring-leafing cottonwoods, aspens and a nearby creek.

Today’s writing subject is, you guessed it, tags, without which a reader wouldn’t know who is speaking that marvelous dialogue you just wrote.

One of my favorite and, I think, most useful books on writing is Arthur Plotnik’s Spunk and Bite.

He states in the beginning of the book that there are situations where every rule can and, sometimes should, be broken.  A good writer must know when and how.

Many writing gurus (experts, maybe) declare that you must never use any tag but Said.  At least limit yourself to said, asked and replied.  Arthur Plotnik believes that this rule should apply  “when the context and content of the dialogue, narrative description and the speaker’s character” are clear.  He used this example:

A cry of terror broke from Dorian Gray’s lips, and he rushed between the painter and the screen.  “Basil,” he said, looking very pale, “you must not look at it.”  (Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray)

Adding anything more than said in this tag would have been redundant.

Don’t use a tag that calls too much attention to itself (unless, of course, for some reason, you want it to make it stand out–humor, perhaps?).

Use descriptive tags when:

  • The sound of the speaker’s voice is important, but not clear in the dialogue.
  • To provide counterpoint where one speaker’s voice is neutral and the other speaker’s is not (anger v. calm)
  • When a character speaks against the line (“I love you,” he said angrily).

In the end, as the writer, you have the last word as to when you need to use an emphatic tag.  Only, as always, consider your reader.

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