Speech tags are like flag posts at the end of a sentence. They contain a noun/pronoun, (a name or he/she to indicate who is speaking) and a adverb to tell us ‘how’ they are speaking. Using such mechanical devices in writing can reflect poorly on the writer but they’re easily mended once you learn the techniques to get rid of most speech tags.
In the literary world there’s a clear difference of opinion on the usage of speech tags. Some (like my writer friend Jonas Saul) don’t use them at all if it can be avoided, and others use them way too much. To me, they’re sometimes necessary, but overall I try an avoid them as they can distract from good writing.
Take a look at the following piece of dialogue. What do you think the main issue is? If you said speech tags, you’d be correct.
"What are you doing here?" Mary asked "I came to see you!" George exclaimed. "Well, maybe I don't want to see you," Mary said angrily. "Oh come on Mary. You know I'm sorry," George said. "I don't know any such thing," Mary said.
Blah blah blah….I think you get the idea. Some writers think it’s important to tag each and every sentence but not only is it unnecessary it’s annoying.
First: we know this particular conversation happens between only two people. It shouldn’t be too hard to distinguish between the two. Here the tags to inform the reader who is talking are completely redundant.
Second: read the scene aloud and you’ll notice that “said” is overused.
Third: It’s always great to add verbs to your writing. Let’s add some action to the scene to increase the tension, get rid of the tag lines, and introduce motion. I’ll use the same scene.
"George?" Mary peeked out from behind the half closed door. "What are you doing here?" "I came to see you." He stood tall on the bottom step as he wrung his wool hat between his hands "Well, maybe I don't want to see you." "Oh come on Mary. Please don't be angry." He tried to catch her eye. "You know I'm sorry." "I don't know any such thing." Mary stepped back and slammed the door.
So in this second one, I changed it up a bit to add some action. This is still a very simple example but illustrates how the writer can move the scene along and drop the tags. Some of the tags are in the middle of dialogue which breaks up longer text and adds emphasis. Also, when you read it out loud it not only flows better, but you don’t have that repetitive “said” all the time.
By adding verbs, it also allows the writer to drop the adverbs like “angrily” as the actions of Mary now show the emotion as opposed to telling. Check here for more information on how to show don’t tell which is important in making your writing stronger.
The other thing to be careful of is not tagging your speech tag with an adverb so you can tell the reader what’s going on. Words like furiously, sadly, gleefully, shyly…The list goes forever. You need to put verbs into your sentences because like Stephen King says in his book Write On…
“I believe the road to hell is paved with adverbs…”Stephen King
What King was saying here is that dialogue should be led by strong verbs and not cluttered up by a bunch of descriptive words that make a mess of the prose. When you add verbs to enhance your sentence tags then a new picture emerges to draw you into the scene. It will allow your imagination to take off and form pictures in your mind.
Sometimes descriptive word tags will work in dialogue but use them sparingly and read it aloud to determine if it works.
You’re limited only by your imagination. When you write a scene try and capture the feeling and emotion of the characters. What is the physical response?–and that could be anything from slamming a door, to blushing, to self-talk and plotting revenge.
When you read, pay special attention to how the author uses speech tags. Once you become aware you’ll start to be bothered by the constant “I said” “She said” because it’s so repetative.
Now, it can be a different story when there are more than two involved in the conversation.
Make sure to use a speech tag of he said/she said when it’s unclear at to who is talking. Make the dialogue personal by using gestures (like eye roll or shrug), actions (like brushing crumbs from the chair) or some sort of movement (like slamming the door, stomping down the stairs, etc.). These should be able to be attributed specifically toward the person speaking. Use these to personalize your characters.
And, if necessary, don’t hesitate to toss in a “he said” every once in a while. Leave the adverb off. Keep it simple. It is a tool that is at your disposal to identify the speaker but use it wisely.
Go back to your writing, especially the dialogue and begin playing with the speech tags. Get rid of most of them. Eliminate the adverbs if you can and give the characters and, the conversations some life.
Good luck. Thanks for reading My Twisted Writer Brain.
Addendum: It was brought to my attention that too much of a good thing is usually too much. So remember, all things in moderation. Don’t hesitate to throw in the “Don’t over do it on the action tags either,” Faye said. “Those too can get annoying and make it look like you’re trying too hard.”