Okay, first, to get us on the same page, what I call a “tag line” is what some call a “narrative beat.” I guess there are other names for it too, but here’s why I call it a tag line.
When characters are engaging in dialogue, there are two types of narrative that may accompany the dialogue. One is the tag line. The other, I call a brief descriptive narrative. They are distinctly different from each other.
Because this post is about tag lines, and because they require a more in-depth explanation, I’ll define and describe the brief descriptive narrative first.
A brief descriptive narrative BOTH identifies the character who’s about to speak AND enables the reader to see some sort of action. That action will indicate the character’s mood, position or attitude.
“Sheila smiled” is a brief descriptive narrative. “Harry nodded” is a brief descriptive narrative. So are “John gestured toward the door,” “Sue grinned and a mischevious twinkle crept into her eyes,” and “Jack flung open the door.”
Of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Notice that in every case, the brief descriptive narrative sentence makes perfect grammatical sense on its own.
In other words, it’s a complete thought. A complete sentence. It isn’t dependent on the dialogue to make sense.
Now for the tag line.
A tag line consists of a noun or pronoun plus a verb that indicates a form of utterance. Very few verbs indicate a form of utterance. The most common (and best to use to carry dialogue) is “said.”
Others that are commonly used are “whispered,” “mumbled” and “muttered.” Some writers like using “asked” too, but the question mark at the end of a question pretty much lets the reader know the speaker “asked,” yes?
Even though the tag line has both a subject and a verb, it doesn’t make sense by itself. Because the verb is transitive (meaning it requires a direct object), it is dependent on the dialogue to make sense.
For that reason, the tag line is always (yes, always) attached to a line of dialogue, most often with a comma. It isn’t separated with a period.
More to the point, note that the tag line exists only to let the reader know which character’s speaking, so the writer should use one only when the reader may be in doubt. (Of course, you can do the same thing with a brief descriptive narrative.)
Many writers believe, erroneously, that a tag line should be “interesting.” Most of them have learned that nonsense from alleged writing instructors who should be selling shoes instead of teaching writing.
Remember, the tag line exists only to let the reader know which character is speaking. For that reason alone, the tag line should be short and bland. It shouldn’t draw attention to itself.
The form of the tag line on the page is
John said, “Dialogue goes here.”
Ramona asked, “Does dialogue go there?”
But again, with reference to either of these, it’s better to use a brief descriptive narrative rather than a tag line whenever possible:
John pointed to a place on the page. “Dialogue goes here.”
Ramona frowned. “Does dialogue go there?”
As you can see, with the brief descriptive narrative, the reader BOTH learns which character is about to speak and sees a bit of the scene, determines the character’s mood, etc.
Also notice that the tag lines do not make sense by themselves and are attached to the dialogue with a comma. The brief descriptive narratives, however, are both followed by periods.
A long while back, I began keeping a list of words various writers use in tag lines to try to (again, erroneously) “liven them up.” Keeping the list livened ME up. (grin)
So here’s a list of verbs that should NOT be used in tag lines. Ever.
You cannot “smile” a line of dialogue. You can’t.
As you look over the list below, in every case, imagine “he” or “she” in front of the word, then a comma and a line of dialogue. I think then this will become clearer for you.
Note that none of these verbs indicates a form of utterance. Yet I’ve seen all of them used erroneously in tag lines:
abused, accused, acknowledged, admonished, affirmed, agreed, allowed, amended, amplified, answered, apologized, assured, attacked, attempted, beamed, berated, blurted, blustered, broke in, brooded, brought up, bubbled, burlesqued, burst out, cajoled, called, called out, came back, cautioned, challenged, chastized, cheered, chided, chirped, chirped in, choked, chorused, chuckled, clarified, coached, coaxed, commiserated, complimented, conceded, consoled, contributed, continued, conveyed, convoluted, corrected, correcting, countered, cracked, criticized, croaked, croaked out, cursed, cut in, dared, defended, delivered, delved, digressed, directed, denied, described, editorialized, ejaculated, encouraged, ended, enjoined, enlightened, enthused, evaded, exhaled, explained, expostulated, expounded, extemporized, finished, fished, fly casted, followed, framed, frowned, frowning, gave, gave back, gave him, gave him back, gave out, giggled, got out, greeted, grinned, griped, gripped, groused, gushed, hazarded, hedged, hinted, identified, improvised, informed, instructed, interrupted, intoned, inveigled, invited, justified, kicked out, lamented, laughed, lectured, lolled out, maintained, managed, mentioned, modified, mouthed, muffled, mused, nagged, nibbled, objected, offered, oozed, ordered, owned up, paddled back, persisted, pannicked, piped in, piped up, placated, played back, pleaded, pointed out, pontificated, pounced, pressed, probed, prodded, prompted, pronounced, proposed, protested, protracted, pushed, put in, put out, quavered, questioned, quipped, quizzed, reasoned, reassured, recommended, relayed, reminded, reposted, resumed, retorted, returned, revealed, sang, sang out, scolded, seconded, sentenced, shot, sighed, sleazed, smiled, snapped, snarled, sneered, snickered, sniffed, sobbed, spat, spewed, spoke up, spouted, stamped, started, stumbled, submitted, suggested, sulked, summarized, supplied, supported, sussurrated, syruped out, talked on, teased, telegraphed, temporized, threatened, tossed, touted, tried, trilled, trumped, trumpeted, tumbled out, urged, ventured, vocalized, voiced, volumed, volunteered, warned, waved, welcomed, went on, worried, zinged.
This is not an exhaustive list. This is only a list of the misuses I’ve encountered in manuscripts to date. And yes, I do add to the list as I encounter new misuses. 🙂
Example: “Some of the verbs on this list — like answered and acknowledged — are at least passable, but most are just ludicrous,” she sentenced. (grin)
“And with that, I’ll bid you adieu,” he French-languaged. (grin)
‘Til next time, happy (clean) writing,
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