Tag, You’re It! Some Rules Regarding Taglines

Taglines, also known as speaker attributions, have one literary function. They identify which character is speaking. That’s all. Here are a few rules regarding their use.

1.       Don’t use multisyllable taglines. A simple “he said/she said” is usually all that’s needed.

          Reason: Multisyllable taglines, such as “he remarked” or “she  insisted,” will jerk readers out of our story because they  draw attention to themselves. When we use simple taglines, such as  “said” and “asked,” readers tend to gloss over them. Thus, they   “disappear.”

2.       Don’t use adverbial modifiers, such as “John said angrily” or “Sue said happily.”

          Reason: Well-written dialogue doesn’t need them. If John is angry,   show that in his dialogue or if Sue is happy, show that in her dialogue. Dialogue, after all, is one of those ways we follow that old literary maxim “show, don’t tell.”

3.       Sometimes we’ll need to use volume taglines such as “he shouted/she shouted” or “he whispered/she whispered.” When we use volume taglines, keep them simple.

          Reason: Because dialogue is showing, not telling, it’s impossible to show a character’s speech volume. Thus, volume must be told.

4.       Don’t use taglines with every line of dialogue.

          Reason: This gets tedious to readers after a while.

5.       Spend a lot of time getting to know your characters: what makes them tick, education, hobbies,  personality, how they speak, etc. Writing their biographies is a good way to accomplish this.

          Reason: If each character has his/her own unique speech patterns, pet words and  phrases, and so on, this will help avoid overusing taglines. Why? Because readers will immediately know which character is speaking

A Final Thought: Do use taglines. Readers need to know which character is speaking. Just be careful when using them, and don’t overdo it.