Thursday, March 22, 2012

He Said/She Said

“The pages are still blank, but there is a miraculous feeling of the words being there, written in invisible ink and clamoring to become visible.”~Vladimir Nabakov

Welcome to Writers’ Corner. I hope you’ve had a productive writing week, making your invisible words come to life.

Today, we’re going to discuss taglines. When I first started writing, the more descriptive the tagline, the better. Characters exclaimed, lamented, inferred, intimated, scolded, interjected, and yelled. Those exciting and descriptive tags were banished by editors who informed us such excitement detracts from our writing.

Hence, the he said/she said formula reigned supreme.

Within the last few years, however, fiction has trended toward no tags.

Or in the words of novelist Elmore Leonard: “I try to leave out the parts that people skip.”

Are you wondering how this could be accomplished? Here’s an example:

“Have some juice.” John extended the orange juice pitcher.
Brenda didn’t want juice. In fact, she didn’t want to be sharing a table with someone who had betrayed her. Besides, she hated orange juice. And he knew it. Probably the reason he offered it. “No, thank you.”
John thumped the pitcher on the table, sloshing the juice over the top.
“Now you’ve done it.” Brenda reached for a dishtowel. “If I’ve told you once, I’ve told you a million times.”
“You’ve told me what?” John scowled over his forkful of eggs.
“Clumsy.” Brenda returned his scowl and reached for her fork. If she tried hard enough to ignore him, maybe he’d take the hint and disappear. For good.

Because I didn’t insert he said/she said tags, your eye skimmed over the story quicker, thus drawing you into the conversation better.

This example also ties in with my previous blog about hooking the reader. This could easily be used as an opening paragraph, and again, not much information has been given the reader, but that’s okay. The atmosphere has been created. The characters are in conflict. It’s a good start.

So, the challenge this week is—look at your WIP and see how many he said/she said tags you can delete and rewrite.

For a more in-depth look at writing without tags, visit award-winning novelist Gail Gaymer Martin’s website Writing Fiction Right. She’s my go-to guru for all things written.

If you have any suggestions for future blogs on topics you’d like illustrated or elaborated on, please leave a comment. I’d love to hear from you. 


  1. Excellent post! Something I've had to learn as I've gotten edited. Sometimes, you do have to put in dialogue tags, if there are 3 or more people speaking, or if it's not clear your character is shouting, etc. But you're totally right. It reads much faster w/out the extraneous he/she said.

    That said, I just picked up a famous historical fiction writer's book, and it's full of dialogue tagging and adverbs! Shocking but true. I suppose there are some exceptions.

    Thanks for posting this!

    1. Thanks, Heather. You made several good points. I agree when three people are in the conversation, you may need tags at times, but as you can see in my examples, if the action matches with the person speaking, you can use the tags sparingly. The thing to remember with writing is there are exceptions to everything. Also, veteran writers with several books published can break rules or negotiate the editing in their manuscripts, mainly because trends don't always match with what is grammatically correct.

      Thanks for stopping by and commenting!

  2. I didn't actually realize that deleting tag lines was preferred. I like what you've written, and it reads easily and smoothly, as you said. But I sometimes get submissions with tag lines left out and they sound awkward to me. Are there times it's better to use them or tips for omitting them?

    1. Gail, my answer is below. I thought I'd hit the reply button, but it created a new comment instead.

  3. Yes, the preferred method for fiction is no tags (for now). Of course, if the dialogue sounds awkward without the tag, or if the reader can't discern who's talking, the tag is necessary. But as Gail Gaymer Martin mentions on her blog (and she has several entries about dialogue), she has written several books with no tags at all. However, you can't just cut tags without creating an action for the speaker, otherwise, your reader will become confused about who's talking. I'm not sure this is done as easily in non-fiction, especially in devotions, although if you look at my last WOW submission, with five lines of dialogue, I used two tags. So I would say, as a writer, challenge yourself to cut the tags and rewrite where you can.