Skip to content
September 14, 2010 / theoldsilly

Professor Old Silly’s Tutorial Tuesday – To Tag or Not to Tag, and How

Welcome back to Bloggyversity, English Comp Class 10001.3b, “Writing With Power in Fiction”. Take your seats, please class, I need your full attention, as in immediately. I have another very important tea and crumpets date with Ms. Flanders in just ten minutes, so stop with the flirting and sophomoric shenanigans, turn off your ipods, cell phones, black and/or raspberries, stop with the twittering, get your faces out of Facebook, boot up your monitors, straighten your drawers, plop your butts in your seats and be quiet. I’m in no mood for your typical silliness. Plus if you’re good I have some more fresh baked cookies for you all after class, courtesy once again of the lovely Ms. Flanders.

That’s much better. Ahem. Today I’d like to discuss more subtleties with regard to dialog tags. First of all, ‘to tag or not to tag’, that is the question, and secondly, comparing regular speaker identity tags to what are referred to as ‘action tags’.

So. To tag or not to tag? Generally speaking, in a two person dialog passage, after the first back and forth interchange have taken place, and unless something happens to change the rhythm of the conversation, the introduction of a new speaker, for one instance, it is not necessary to include tags once the two speakers have been identified. Their voices should be distinctive enough, and the flow of the conversation obvious enough, that the reader knows who is saying what. Let’s take a look at a dialog where there are too many, and unneeded, tags being used.


“What do you want to have for dinner, John?” Mary said.

John said, “Mm, how about a seafood soufflé?”

“Again? We just had that two days ago, and it’s late, John … takes me two hours to prepare that dish,” Mary said.

“Well, then, you just pick out something. I’m fine with whatever you fix,” John said.


See how boringly redundant that reads? As if the reader has no gray matter between the ears to remember who is saying what, rather rude and condescending writing, and even within the quoted statements they refer to each other by name – which adds further to the needlessness of all the tags. Now let’s look at the same conversation, eliminating all the unnecessary tags.


“What do you want to have for dinner, John?” Mary said.

“Mm, how about a seafood soufflé?”

“Again? We just had that two days ago, and it’s late, John … takes me two hours to prepare that dish.”

“Well, then, you just pick out something. I’m fine with whatever you fix.”



Only one tag was needed in that passage to make it obvious who was saying what, hmm? But now we have a case of, as we’ve discussed before in class, “talking heads”. Quite a dry scene, nothing but talking going on. This is where the skilled writer adds ‘action tags’, bringing the reader into the scene, ‘showing’ the world Mary and John are in. Take a look at the scene again, inhanced with a couple examples of action tags added.


“What do you want to have for dinner, John?” Mary said, fastening her apron around her waiste.

John put his book down, looked up and to the left, sitting in his favorite reclining chair. “Mm, how about a seafood soufflé?”

“Again?” Mary frowned and shook her head. “We just had that two days ago, and it’s late, John … takes me two hours to prepare that dish.”

John picked his book back up, crossed his legs and sighed. “Well, then, you just pick out something. I’m fine with whatever you fix.”


Better, hmm? And of course there are many different combinations of tag or no tag, speaker ID tags, and action tags, from which to draw upon. Generally, it is best to not rely on speaking tags when not really needed, better to use action tags, and it is a delicate balance of all the possible combinations that creates a more enjoyable, believable, and ‘see-able’ story.

Okay, class dismissed, as usual leave your comments on my desk, and I must say . Wow! You’re all still here … Gold stars for everyone, and please help yourself to these still warm fresh-baked cookies Ms. Flanders was kind enough to bake for you all.

Ooops, my cell.

“Yes, yes, Ms. Flanders, I’m coming, be right with you – and I just have to tell you how wonderful my class behaved today. Yes, yes, I agree .. mmmhmm, I’ve definitely noticed a much better attitude amongst the students once I took your advice of serving your baked goods at the end. ‘Kay, hang on, here I come.”

“Oh, class … no more than two apiece, please? Let’s be good and share, now …”

Click on Tweety Bird and Tweet this post if you liked it!

Tweet Me from The Old Silly's Free Spirit Blog



Leave a Comment
  1. Alex J. Cavanaugh / Sep 14 2010 5:44 am

    I’m learning to limit my tags, but I tend to include an action with them, like the last example.

  2. ReformingGeek / Sep 14 2010 8:12 am

    Burp. Thanks for the cookies.

    John must really like seafood souffle.


    Thanks for the tips.

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:09 pm

      So do I. Do you make a good seafood souffle? 😉

  3. karen walker / Sep 14 2010 9:00 am

    I love your examples – make everything crystal clear. And ooh, those cookies look scrumptious.

  4. Elspeth Antonelli / Sep 14 2010 11:07 am

    I start off with the dialogue and minimal tags. The filling-in action prose comes in later. It does give a fuller picture of the situation, but I’ve found sometimes, the dialogue speaks for itself.

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:10 pm

      I do that too, El – if I’m doing my self edits and a scene seems ‘flat’ I’ll interject more action tags.

    • authorguy / Sep 14 2010 2:39 pm

      I’ve found myself doing that more than once. Pages of dialog that carry me along, and then I realize that I’ve got nothing else, showing any action whatever, so I have to go back and figure out what they’re doing during all the back and forth.

      • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:57 pm

        Right. And I’ve even read big name authors – Baldacci, for instance, I was reading one of his novels, “Divine Justice” – great book, BUT he’d have like, a whole page, sometimes two, of back and forth “talking heads” dialog. I was like, what is happening while they are talking? Nobody moves even a lick? No one sneezed or scratches or rubs their chin, even? He’s a really fine writer, but if I were his editor on that book I’d have demanded some action tags, for sure.

  5. Terry Odell / Sep 14 2010 12:49 pm

    The goal is to make the dialogue sound realistic as well as let the readers keep the speakers clear.

    I know these are examples, and ‘generic’ so I won’t jump on my soapbox about … well, if I said, then I’d be jumping on my soapbox. Instead, I’ll have the cookies.

    (I have a dialogue handout on my website)

    Terry’s Place
    Romance with a Twist–of Mystery

  6. authorguy / Sep 14 2010 12:51 pm

    I prefer the ‘no tags at all’ approach. I usually embed dialog lines in a paragraph showing what the speaker is doing and thinking so there is no need for the tag. When I need a tag I’ll use the action tag by preference.

    Marc Vun Kannon

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:11 pm

      You’re definitely on the right track, Authorguy…

  7. Cactus Annie / Sep 14 2010 1:47 pm

    Loved the class, AND the brownies, Prof. Old Silly! But, ahem, still a little jealous of Ms. Flanders, lol 😉

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:12 pm

      Now, Cactus, don’t be jealous … you KNOW I still love ya! (wink)

  8. Stanley Berber / Sep 14 2010 1:49 pm

    Even though I’m not a writer I like these posts – helps me understand why some books read better than others. Good, clear examples, Prof. And thank Ms. Flanders – the brownies are scrumpdilioushes!

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:12 pm

      “scrumpdilioushes!” eh? I’ll have to tell her!

  9. Kissie / Sep 14 2010 1:59 pm

    Okay, got it.

    And, for the record I don’t need to be bribed with food any more.

    I don’t even want to READ about fattening foods!

    • theoldsilly / Sep 14 2010 2:13 pm

      LOL, well good for you, Kissie… self control!

  10. unwriter1 / Sep 14 2010 4:12 pm

    First and foremost, Mary needs to take her waiste to the library and get a dictionary! Any action after that is gravy. Speaking of gravy, What’s with this seafood cr, junk, anyway? Why not a good, all American 20oz steak with buttered beans, mashed potatoes (with homemade gravy of course), and a simple salad? Let poor John have at least one decent meal. THEN, you can shove those delicious goodies at him from Ms. Flanders.

  11. Connie Arnold / Sep 14 2010 4:35 pm

    Thanks for the great class and treats, Marvin. Always a pleasure to visit here!

  12. Helen Ginger / Sep 14 2010 5:08 pm

    You’re right, Teach. As long as it’s clear who’s talking and to whom, the fewer the tags, the better.

  13. Jane Kennedy Sutton / Sep 14 2010 6:07 pm

    I like using and reading action tags, but what I’d really like is one of those cookies!)

  14. AK / Sep 15 2010 5:56 am

    That was fun yet very informative.. Thanks for the cookies!

  15. Enid Wilson / Sep 16 2010 6:01 am

    I’m still trying to use less tag but many scenes have too many people.

    My Darcy Mutates…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: