In a recent post I wrote about working on revisions, I said that I often look for beginner-type slips, for example, where I may have used a tag line that is substituting for emotion. The Mutt commented that he wondered what I meant, and I thought that this would make a great topic. A lot of my students do this, and even published authors sneak this in once in a while. Here’s a “for instance” that may help explain:
“You are such an idiot,” screamed Zelda. “You are an uncouth moron and I don’t know what I ever saw in you,” she cried.
“But I thought you loved me,” stammered Hank. “Didn’t that day in the dentist’s chair mean anything to you?” he whined.
“If you ever tell anyone about that,” threatened Zelda, “I’ll deny it. You’ll regret you ever met me.”
“I think I already do,” sobbed Hank.
The reality here is that this is a highly emotional scene, but in this case the writer doesn’t trust the reader to get the emotion through dialog alone, so she (yes, I wrote it) has added enhanced tags like sobbed, threatened, stammered, etc. to really drive home the point to the reader.
So what’s wrong with that? Well, first off it means that the writer is treating the reader with disrespect. The purpose of the tag line is only to indicate who is speaking, to make it easier for the reader to follow along. Often, tag lines are completely unnecessary. The writer can substitute action to help build the emotion, or can add physical or emotional details to bring the scene more fully to life. When tag lines are necessary, the best choices are said, asked, answered, or replied. Readers use these only as brief markers, typically ignoring them to move more quickly along in the story – which is ultimately what we want them to do, isn’t it?
So let’s look again at that scene with a bit of revision on the tag lines, adding some action and descriptive detail to create the emotion instead.
“You are such an idiot,” Zelda said. Her cold eyes stared at Hank through the black curtain of her hair sending an icy chill up his spine. “You are an uncouth moron and I don’t know what I ever saw in you.”
“But I thought you loved me.” Hank looked at her; disbelief flooded his body. “Didn’t that day in the dentist’s chair mean anything to you?” His heart ached at the memory of their sacred moment shared in secret.
“If you ever tell anyone about that,” Zelda said, her skeletal hand gripped tightly around her umbrella, “I’ll deny it. You’ll regret you ever met me.”
Hank took a step backward. “I think I already do.”
Yes, it’s a wee bit over the top because of the subject, but you get the idea. The emotion should be created by the body language, the dialog itself, and the characters’ emotional reactions, but it should not be forced down the reader’s throat by tag lines.
Another situation where we see this same issue is a tag line and adverb combined. Whispering softly, laughing loudly, etc. is a dead give-away that the writer is being lazy, not really wanting to spend the time writing specific detail. For example:
Almost inaudibly, she breathed her reply. “Yes.”
“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” she sighed wistfully.
“That’s an order, private,” he barked forcefully.
These are the cliches of dialog. This is really lazy writing at it’s – uh – finest. Not only is the writer trying to force the emotion through an inappropriate tag, but then he or she backs it up with one of the English language’s most worthless descriptors – an adverb. Those pesky “ly” words often look like they are adding detail, but they’re a short cut really. And no, these I didn’t write – they come from (believe it or not) published books.
This is where, during revision, a real writer gets to work and eliminates the lazy stuff, supplanting it with solid writing that actually says something meaningful to the writer. Here is one example of how I would rewrite – not that my way is the only way, but this is my blog:
“Oh, it’s so beautiful,” Lydia said. She let out a small sigh as she watched the sun bow deeper behind the mountains and turn the sky a collection of purples and blues.
Pushy tag lines, especially when combined with adverbs, are lazy writing. A writer who avoids using them will have to work a little harder, true, but the reward is something more solidly written and readers who come back for more.