The Possible Proper Use Of Taglines

There are many places where Creative Writers can learn about their craft, whether they are completely new to writing or old pros. There are writing classes at your local university, junior college, or adult education center. There are online resources, such as blogs like this one. There are books stretching for rows at your nearby bookstore.

Wherever you get your writing direction, be sure and notice the difference between the hard and fast rules of Creative Writing (like Show me, don’t Tell me) and different author’s preferences. Keep in mind that a writer’s opinions are just that: opinions. Still that doesn’t mean you can’t learn from them.

My first Creative Writing professor had an opinion he insisted upon for in-class writing, stipulating you can do whatever you want later. His idea was it made for a clearer written text. I think he is right, and it is what I still do this day. But I know it is merely my preference and nothing more. But I offer it for you today, and maybe it will help you, too.

Taglines in dialogue should only be done a certain way.

Never Use Adverbs

Novice writers need to be warned against using adverbs, and veterans should be scolded for their use. A common breeding ground for adverbs is in taglines. How many times have you read, “he said frantically,” or “she said cautiously”? The problem with these adverbs is the same problem with adverbs anywhere: They are notorious tellers and showing killers.

Instead of telling me he said this frantically, show me by his actions that he is frantic. In place of saying that she said something cautiously, describe how she says it to let us know it is in a cautious manner. Adverbs may have a place, and only on the rarest of occasions, but they never should be used in taglines. That is my opinion, but I feel it is a commonly shared one.

Said Is Good Enough

When I was starting out I did my best to avoid the word “said” in dialogue taglines. Now it is the only thing I use. My teacher broke of, what I now realize was, a bad habit.

I thought it added color to say “stated,” “declared,” “beckoned,” “answered,” and so forth, in place of the simple “said.” Now when I see it somewhere, it looks amateurish to me.

Using something other than “said” draws attention to your tagline and takes attention away from your dialogue. You want all eyes focused on the conversation in your book. You never need anything other “said,” even if it would be replaced with “shouted” or “whispered.” If you need something to indicate the volume of the words, let your narrative action do that.

Dialogue & Narrative

I was taught that the best writing separates the action from the conversation. For that reason, I always make every line of dialogue its own paragraph. When done consistently, it doesn’t slow down anything, which I feel is the common fear.

I am seeing more and more instances these days of narrative action and dialogue in these sentences. And while it is only my opinion, it still feels like a cheese grater on my brain whenever I see it. Basically, this makes the action of the speaker a part of the tagline. We don’t need “he turned to her and said” ever, and it is an easy problem to fix.

We think “he turned to her” is too weak to be its own sentence separate from the dialogue, so we force it into the same sentence as the dialogue. So have the speaker do something interesting besides turning. You can write something like “He inched toward her as if proximity merited seriousness,” then follow that with a great line of dialogue, something like, “Your shoe is untied,” “Can I  have some gum?” or “May I borrow your hockey stick?”

The problem with forcing your action into the tagline of dialogue is that it weakens both. What a character does and says should be separated because both are important. Don’t water it down with some “he turned to her and said” routine.

Best To Avoid Them

One of the most basic rules I follow regarding the proper use of taglines is simply to not use them at all. Maybe it’s the Minimalist in me. Maybe it comes from reading and adoring so much Hemingway and McCarthy, but I don’t use tag lines unless there is no other way for you to know who is speaking, and even then I still don’t sometimes.

Let’s face it, taglines are the most useless part of any fiction. They are the ultimate case of empty calories in any writing. They contribute nothing. I know on my own part, I twice had stories where four people were at a table eating, and even with that many, I used taglines as sparingly as I could.

It seems to me that what is said should be so clearly identifiable with the speaker that any identifying tagline becomes superfluous. In other words, if you need a tagline to know who is saying any particular bit of dialogue, then maybe you need to work on your dialogue writing skills, either that or your character development.

To be fair I do use taglines, but as little as possible. It keeps the focus on what is being said and that provides a rhythm to the speech and a flow to the conversation. These are my opinions and nothing more. But I feel as if they are good opinions, and you might want to consider them as way of improving your Creative Writing.

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2 Comments

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2 responses to “The Possible Proper Use Of Taglines

  1. I got slaughtered by my critique groups early on for avoiding dialogue tags like a kid on a playground. I didn’t, and still don’t, care. I hate “said,” though. I’d rather be elliptical than use it. Better to be confusing than amateurish. The tough one, for me, is YA/MG writing. if a dialogue tag is left out that causes a sixth-grader to give up, there is zero chance he or she will pick it up again. Yet, there are NO English teachers who teach anything below high school who don’t slash every instance of the four-letter S-word with red pencil. Thus, don’t I run the risk that without more descriptive dialogue tags for the school-aged set, that there is zero chance your book will ever see any eyeballs?

  2. Pingback: The Problem With Adverbs | A WORD FITLY SPOKEN

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