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Speech Tags – How to Get the Balance Right in your Writing

drawing of Sherlock Holmes by Sidney Paget - his mouth is closed so no speech tag needed here!

Sherlock Holmes’ lips are sealed – probably for good reason (Drawing by Sidney Paget, public domain, via Wikipedia)

Speech tags – those little phrases that punctuate dialogue, such as “he said” or “she asked” – make up a tiny part of a manuscript, but amongst authors they can generate strong feeling out of all proportion to their size. This post draws on the collective wisdom of ALLi author members about effective use of speech tags in your writing. 

 

When authors discuss how not to write speech tags, they often cite startling examples from vintage literature such as Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories:

Holmes shrugged his shoulders.

“He has played a not unimportant part in this drama,” said he. “The three men having ascended the stairs, which they did on tiptoe, the elder man first, the younger man second, and the unknown man in the rear–“

“My dear Holmes!” I ejaculated.

Such extravagant and dated vocabulary may distract the twenty-first century reader, and there is now a move to keep speech tags to an absolute minimum, ideally using only “said” or “asked”, unadorned by adverbs.

As the odd “murmured” or “muttered” kept creeping into my own writing,  I began to wonder whether the modern trend had gone too far. I therefore sought the views of the ALLi author hive via our members’ forum, and here is a summary of the lively conversation that ensued.

When To Use Speech Tags

In short, as seldom as possible.

The content of the dialogue should make clear who is saying what, from the logic of the conversation and from the linguistic style of each character taking part.

This should be relatively easy if the conversation is a duologue, but if three or more are involved, you may need more speech tags to avoid confusion.

Consider alternative devices, such as:

  • adding “beats” or little descriptions of actions immediately before or after a speech to clarify who is saying what. (Holmes set down his pipe. “I perceive you are recently returned from Afghanistan.”)
  • inserting names of the speakers into the speech. (“Holmes, how the devil did you know that?”)

Which Speech Tags To Use

photo of someone with their finger to their lips in a shushing action to indicate using fewer speech tags

Sssh! Keep those speech tags to a minimum (Photo by Kristina Flour via Unsplash.com)

The modern trend is pared-down simplicity, and some writers adopt a rigid rule of only ever using “said” or “asked”, free of adverbs, arguing that the tone of voice should be obvious from the words themselves, supported by the actions surrounding the speech.

But even these should be used sparingly, and only when really necessary for sense. Although plain words such as these seem invisible to the reader, even these will become an irritant if used too often or too widely.

If you find yourself muttering, whimpering, whispering, shrieking, or  wanting to modify plain speech tags with an adjective, check whether it is possible to embed the right tone in the text in a different way.

The Acid Test for Speech Tags

Self-editing for Speech Tags

It’s best not to get distracted by choice of speech tag while you’re writing your first draft – just let the story flow. But then at self-editing stage, do separate pass through your draft specifically looking at speech tags. Highlighting them all may help you focus on them. Look out for:

  • repetition of the same speech tags within a conversation (“Do you really love me?” he asked. “How can you doubt it?” she asked.)
  • superfluous speech tags where the speaker’s identity is clear from the context (“Susan, is that you?” asked Mark. “Yes, Mark, it’s me,” said Susan.)
  • more lavish speech tags than the dialogue requires – (“You take that back, you dog!” he shouted angrily.)

If you’re still not sure after self-editing your manuscript, try reading it aloud:

  • Do you feel self-conscious when you read the speech tags?
  • Are they slowing down the story?

If they’re distracting and detracting, it’s time to ditch them and move on.

Second Opinions on Speech Tags

If you use beta readers to test-drive your self-edited draft, ask them to comment on your use of speech tags. Paid, professional editors will almost certainly comment on any dubious use of speech tags whether you want them to or not. It’s a stylistic point worth discussing with your editor to agree what’s right for your manuscript.

Are Writing Rules Made to be Broken?

As with any matter of writing style, it’s likely that writers will worry far more than readers do about their use of speech tags.

Ultimately, what matters most is not what authors think, but whether readers enjoy their stories.

So if you’re happy with the way you’re writing your dialogue, and readers have never complained, don’t feel obliged to rethink your strategy to fit in with modern trends. Now you know the thinking behind the move towards simplicity, as an indie author, it’s your prerogative to comply or defy – or even to “expostulate loudly” in favor of doing it your way.

This post is a summary of a lively discussion between ALLi author members on our member-only Facebook forum, one of 21 benefits you’ll gain by joining our nonprofit group. For more information about the other 20 great reasons to join ALLi, please visit the ALLi website here: www.allianceindependentauthors.org.

OVER TO YOU Do you agree with the modern trend for simplicity or has it gone too far? What’s your favourite speech tag? Like to share any horror stories? Feel free to leave a comment!

OTHER PROVOCATIVE POSTS ABOUT WRITING CRAFT
From the ALLi Author Advice Center Archive

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One Response to Speech Tags – How to Get the Balance Right in your Writing

  1. Audrey Kalman July 19, 2018 at 5:28 pm #

    Tastes do certainly change with the times. Writing styles suited to the early 20th century don’t cut it with readers 100 years later. With dialogue tags, as with anything else, I think it’s all about balance. And you can never go wrong with the “read it aloud” advice. It can reveal so much excess and awkwardness that an on-paper edit might miss!

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