Gather around kids, today we are going to talk about the evils of speechtags. You know what speechtags are. They are the he said, she saids of the literary world. Those little tagalongs that hitch rides on lines of dialog like hobos on freight trains. Some people like them because they are unobtrusive and easy on the eyes. They think you should use them exclusively, never deviating from the simple four letter word with a pronoun prefix. They feel the he/she said speechtag is simple, elegant, and unobtrusive.

They are wrong.

Speechtags are downright diabolical in their blandness.

Worse, they are a virus in your manuscript. They breed like little parasites of laziness. They are the tribbles of your writing and you should cut them out like the infestation they are.

I hear you saying: “But James, if I don’t use them how will my reader know who is talking?”

Easy. You will show them who is talking. This is one of the subtle forms of show don’t tell that takes a lot of work, but remember that every word you put on the page has to carry its own weight. Every word must pay for its time in your manuscript by doing as much work as you can squeeze out of it. Speechtags are the lazy way out. They are the corner cut.

Whenever you are writing two people talking in your story, very rarely are they standing in one spot in an empty room speaking in monotone. Characters should be dynamic. Doing things. Feeling stuff. Being real. So take your cues from how things happen in real life. Someone who is bragging will stick out their chest and start speaking in a slightly deeper baritone. Someone who is lying may look away, glancing around furtively. They may drag their feet in circles of distraction. Someone who is trying to seduce another person will lean in, lowering their voice to create a sense of intimacy.

Your characters need to follow suit. Have them do things to make it clear who is speaking and while they are at it, the things you have them doing should play into the conversation giving it subtext and weight that the words of dialog don’t create on their own.

Let me show you what I mean. Here is what you should NOT do.

Speechtags are of the Devil.” he said.

I doubt speechtags have a religious affiliation.” she said.

They do. They are evil little gremlins who haunt stories.” he said.

I think you may be overstating things. They seem completely neutral to me.” she stated.

No they are not. They slip in like sins of omission seducing writers to the dark side of lazy writing. They demand nothing and steal moments of creativity. They are the step-stones to bland writing!” he cried.

You feel very strongly about this.” she said.

See, that was bland, bland, bland! Now, this is how it should be done.

The door slammed open. The heels on his shoes banged across the floor, overpowering the ruffle made by the sheaf of paper in his hands. “Speechtags are of the Devil.”

She looked up, the book she had been reading dropping down to rest on the Snuggie that wrapped her like a fuzzy lover. “I doubt speechtags have a religious affiliation.”

The sheath of papers stabbed towards her like an accusing finger. “They do. They are evil little gremlins who haunt stories.”

Her lips quirked up at the corners. “I think you may be overstating things. They seem completely neutral to me.”

No, they are not. They slip in like sins of omission seducing writers to the dark side of lazy writing. They demand nothing and steal moments of creativity. They are the step-stones to bland writing!” The vein on his forehead stood out in relief, running crookedly up from his left eyebrow to disappear into a shaggy hedge of hair.

You feel very strongly about this.”

Seconds ticked by as he looked at her from under shadowed brows, his lips drawn tight into a line that made the dimple on his chin crooked. Without another word he spun and walked away, his exit punctuated by the bang of his heels on the floor. She let out a small chuckle and picked up her book.

In example one you have no idea what is going on. You know that he said one thing and then she said something else. The words made sense, but you didn’t know what was going on.

In example two the cues as to who is speaking tell you volumes about the two people. One is obviously a writer, frustrated with his manuscript, the other is a spouse who loves him for all his mercurial writer wackiness. She finds him amusing and is unruffled by his outburst. She is also a reader. There is more in there that I am not outlining, but you can draw your own backstory out of that second example.

Those are quick and dirty examples, but hopefully they show what I am talking about. Use the movement and the motion of your characters to impart the emotion of your characters. Using speechtags are like throwing loose bricks in the path for your dialog to stumble over and twist its ankle. Instead replace them with physical cues that will give your reader insight into the characters who are talking. Doing this will punch up your writing and keep it interesting.

(originally posted at FICTION UNIVERSITY)

Thank you for having me here again. I’ve enjoyed it.

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Tuck, out.



10 comments to SPEECHTAGS ARE OF THE DEVIL (he said)

  • Razziecat

    This is something that I picked up just from reading; I began to notice how my favorite writers rarely used speechtags. That made me very conscious of them in my own writing, and now I have to make an effort to occasionally use one 😉

    My favorite example of “how not to use speechtags” came from a fantasy book I read years ago in which every single possible synonym for “said” was used. I pretty much gave up on the book when one of the characters “chortled” some pretty ordinary dialog 😛

  • Tagging onto Razzie’s comment, my favourite example of “how to not use speechtags” is whenever Terry Pratchett writes a scene including the inimitable wizards from the Unseen University: Archchancellor Ridcully, Ponder Stibbons, the Chair of Indefinite Studies, the Lecturer of Recent Runes, the Dean, the Senior Wrangler, the Librarian and the Bursar. Yep, eight characters, one conversation, no speechtags. In fact, nothing at all except the dialogue, but with pure Pratchettarian genius each character’s dialogue is so stamped with their identity that confusion is impossible.

  • On the flip side, getting rid of all speechtags – without replacing them – is even worse. While speechtags are the devil and bland, confusion of who is speaking is worse. I use a rule of thumb of more than four exchanges of dialogue should have something other than quoted material. “Speechtags are the devil” “A little extreme don’t you think” “They are bland and space wasters” She put a finger to her lips considering her writer friend she often beta read for. “I would agree with devilish.” Not every line of dialogue needs an anchor of characterization or setting, but for goodness’ sake add something every so often to reset your reader on who is speaking. A reader who may be interrupted by kids, a busride, lunch or a dozen other things. I’ve seen too many self-published books that go pure dialogue.

  • Hepseba ALHH

    On the one hand, I *really* agree with you. Books my husband and I both like we usually read aloud to each other, and those authors who use ‘so-and-so said’ *every* *single* *time*…get edited. On the other hand, I do not think I am a good enough writer yet to fore-go *all* speech tags without the indirect attribution becoming excessive. So I prefer *not* to use speech tags, but I do use them sometimes in the interest of maintaining cleanliness and clarity.

  • Razziecat

    Unicorn, good comment! We do have to remember, though, that one reason it’s always easy to figure out when the Librarian speaks is that his remarks are pretty much all, “Oook.” 😉

    I do agree that speechtags are sometimes necessary to be sure which character is speaking. We can’t always throw in bits of action, as it can draw attention away from the dialog itself. On the other hand, a favorite writing exercise of mine is to write brief exchanges of dialog in which there are no speechtags at all. I show which character is speaking by having the first one use the other’s name. I’d give an example except that, in looking them over, I find that many of these bits of dialog aren’t suitable for minors ;0

  • There’s no one way. Balance in everything. Too many speech tags and your audience could be thrown out of the story. Too many actions and your characters could look like fidgeting goofballs that should be in an institution. Too little attribution and your reader may lose track of whom is speaking. It’s a balancing act and is one more reason why writers bust out into guffaws of laughter when someone suggests that writing is easy and anyone can do it.

  • He said while eating potato chips and getting his keyboard greasy while lamenting his trip to work in a bit.

  • I would edit that, if I could. 😉

  • Yeah, I’m going to weigh in on this one and say that I disagree with James to some degree. Some speech tags are necessary, and some simply make the prose flow better. I think that the examples he gives here are good, but to me too much stage direction or gesture or action interspersed with the dialog is actually distracting to the point of annoyance. As in so many things, balance is the key. If it was me rewriting that scene he includes in the post, I would keep a few of the “saids” and replace the rest much as he has. Using all saids, or worse using said-bookisms (like “stated”) is bland. Using none is distracting. Again, for me at least, balance is the thing. My $.02.

  • The evil nature of adverbs deserves a place here. Tuck’s example paints an effective picture of the characters without saying that either of them spoke “lividly” or “patiently.” Instead, the surrounding prose describes livid and patient actions. Good exercise in avoiding pesky adverbs.

    [Insert knee-jerk reactionary statement that claims adverbs can be OK sometimes.]

    Of course, just turn to Hemingway for a particularly jarring example of avoiding speech tags.