Sunday, May 04, 2008

Technical Topics -- Tagging with Action

This isn't going to be of much interest to anyone except writers.
Might not be of interest to them either, when it comes right down to it.

Let me natter on for a minute about 'tagging with action'.

A 'dialog tag' is the set of words that tells us who is speaking the dialog.

'Said' and 'said-isms', ('he replied', 'he swore', 'he promised', 'he shouted',) are the most common dialog tags.

"I've made a right mess of this turkey," Tom said, off handedly.

"Let that sylph go," a voice drifted up from the inky depths of the well, "or ye'll get well acquaint with cold water."

"I'm going to erase this and start over," Tom remarked.

I've marked the dialog tag in blue.

But we can move beyond the 'said' and the 'saidism'.
For instance, dialog can even sit there without any tag at all ... the reader just knows who is speaking. That's a very elegant way to tag dialog.

Probably the second most common way to tag dialog is to give us an action that belongs to the speaker of the dialog.

"I'm not ready to commit myself." Tom shifted from one foot to another, nervously.

Bert flung out a warning hand. "Careful. That's a viper pit ahead of you on the path."

Betsy took a reflective lick off the back of the spoon. "Needs more salt."

In those three sentences, we haven't used 'said' or any of its cousins. We've used action. Action tags.

Now some action tags are used very often.
Consider -- he looked, saw, noticed, glanced, gazed, peered, twisted, turned, got up, stood up, walked, sat down, grinned, smiled, laughed, sighed, nodded, shook his head, lifted his chin, jerked his head, breathed, drew in a breath, let out a breath, inhaled, exhaled, sucked in air, gasped ... and so, infinitely and somewhat boringly, on.

There is nothing wrong with these familiar action tags. Careful writers use them all the time.

One trap we fall into, though, is using these stereotyped, twitchy action tags again and again. We can send our characters through a kind of nervous, pointless dance as they grin and raise eyebrows and nod and frown and . . . you get the idea.

One way to avoid the twitchy, overused action tags is to write an extended action. An extended action doesn't flash by and leave the next line to be tagged by another bitty action. An extended action lasts a long time. Maybe the whole scene.

There are two basic kinds of extended action used for dialog tagging.

Action may be 'story action' that changes the outcome of the story. This action goes on during the dialog, but it is also, in and of itself, important. Betty bops Marcus over the head. Chrissy crashes the Jeep. Stacy shoplifts. Mother mixes poisons.

Or the action may be 'stage business' -- stage business is interesting enough, but it's in there mostly to give our characters something to do with their hands. Betty beats cake batter. Chrissy cracks eggs. Stacy stocks the shelves. Mother mixes salad dressing.

Story action is first choice.
Any scene, any chapter, any line, we're always saying to ourselves 'Tell the story.'

'Stage business', as a technique, is neither right nor wrong.
It's one of the writer's tools. But we have to recognize it when we write it. We have to be sure there isn't some 'story action' we should be using instead.

And we have to pick the best, shiniest 'stage action' in the world, one that tells us about the characters or paints a vivid picture of the scene or foreshadows disaster and delight to come
or does some interesting storytelling stuff like that.


  1. Anonymous8:47 PM

    Excellent advise, and examples, as usual, Jo.


  2. Hi Cathy --

    I did an exercise on this last year at ooks and Writers.

    I like the 'tagging with extended action' bit because it matches dialog with scene action ... something that isn't entirely intuitive. At least not for me.

  3. Creative A2:56 PM

    Hey :)

    As promised, I popped over from absolute write to check out your blog...this entry was a little hard to follow, but interesting. Some of the things you talked about I sort of knew, but I'd never heard them put into words before. Like, the difference between story action and scene action...

    Very helpful.

  4. Hi Creative A --

    You're probably doing all this without thinking about it.

    Lots of stuff is easier to do than to analyze. At least, for me it is.

  5. Anonymous3:25 PM

    story action vs. stagee action:

    thank you, thank you, thank you.

    I really needed to read that. I think I have way more of the latter than the former.


  6. Hi Rene --

    And as I say, stage action is not at all wrong. It's strong and beautiful and useful. Look at what stage action means to playwrights.

    We just have to know that we're doing stage action. We have to be in control.

    For me, that control shows up in draft three or four, if at all.

  7. I heart alliteration. [g]

    This deserves a tweet, and a Facebook link.* Fabulous advice as always, Jo. Thank you so much.

    *Not because of your brilliant use of alliteration, but because you gave me this advice in B&W and it helped make my book that much better.

  8. Hi Tara --

    Sometimes we need just the basic technical stuff pointed out. It doesn't just appear in our heads. We most likely have to have somebody SAY it.

    Somebody over the years said all this to me, sometime or other. So I pass it along.

  9. Story action...THANK YOU. I've been muddling through the edits of my rough draft and this is a concise lesson which helps me focus my nebulous thoughts.

    Also--I saw you at the Lady Jane's Salon reading last month and didn't dare greet you, but it made my day.

  10. Hi Crystal --

    I would so much have liked to say hello, even if it WAS a madhouse and I was shouting to be heard by the folks next to me.

    As I say in the posting -- 'story action' is the best stuff to use when tagging dialog. It is so cool when dialog can be placed in a scene where something necessary is happening.

    This lets us break up the action with dialog and the dialog with action. Makes the pacing so sweet.