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)
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