Posts Tagged ‘speech tags’

Common Writing Mistakes: Speech Tags

Happy Friday, squiders! Today we’re going to continue on with our series on common writing mistakes. We’re still in our first section, which is basic grammar/bad writing issues.

Today, we’re going to discuss speech tags. Just to be absolutely clear, speech tags in and of themselves are not a bad thing. You need them in many cases so it’s clear to your reader who’s talking. The problem is that people tend to feel they need to be “creative” with their speech tags, which can lead to issues.

A speech tag is a word to indicate someone is talking, such as “said,” “asked,” or “replied.”

Issue #1: Improbability

The first rule of speech tags is that they have to be something you can do with your mouth. In most cases, you do not speak with your hands, your head, your body, etc. Some of this is a punctuation problem. For example, you do not need a speech tag if the speaking character immediately does another action, but the two sentences cannot be connected.

WRONG: “It’s this way,” he gestured to the right.
RIGHT: “It’s this way.” He gestured to the right.

The second rule of speech tags that it has to be a sound you can make while talking. People often use words like “laughed” or “snorted” as a speech tag. However, people cannot easily laugh and talk in the same breath. People laugh, then talk, or they talk, then laugh. They can try to talk while laughing, but that’s something else altogether.

Issue #2: Distracting Modifiers

This is somewhat related to the filler/crutch words we discussed last week. This is something a lot of beginning authors do before they’ve figured out how to better express what their characters are trying to say, either through a stronger speech tag, the dialogue itself, or by replacing the speech tag with an action. Often, these take the form of an adverb.

Here’s an example: “That’s terrible,” she said sadly.

It’s not the worst sentence known to man, but there are stronger ways to show that the character is sad. Her shoulders could droop. She might look like she’s going to cry. Her voice could be shaky or waver.

Another example: “I hate you!” he said loudly.

Here you could use a better speech tag, such as “yell” or “scream.” You could also have the character do something, such as stomp away or ball his hands into fists.

Issue #3: Too Much Variety

You occasionally come across writing advice that says something along the lines of “Don’t use boring ol’ ‘said’! Here’s 500 other words you can use instead!”

Noooooo. No. Don’t do this. This sort of advice seems to inspire people to use the strangest and “most creative” speech tags they can think of, and to make sure they never repeat one. That’s not the point of the advice. It actually ties into issue #2, where you’re using too many adverbs as modifiers. Sometimes it is better to have someone beg or imply or protest. It’s truer to what you’re trying to convey.

But it is not an excuse to have someone bellow and your next character gloat and the one after that respond and the one after that whisper. The point is not to use a word that may not properly describe what you want just because it’s creative and special. That’s distracting to your reader and obnoxious. The point is to make sure you’re being precise.

And in most cases, you should use said. Most people just say things in most situations. And the nice thing about said is that it disappears into the narrative, so all readers take from “Barney said” is that Barney is the one currently talking.

This advice is also trying to avoid the “Bob said, Julie said, Linda said” issue, which we’ll address in issue #4.

Issue #4: Talking Heads

Have you ever seen a conversation like this?

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda said.
“Do you think I care?” said Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda said.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda said.

Man, all those saids are a mess, aren’t they? Let’s see if this is any better.

“Look, I’m not okay with this,” Linda yelled.
“Do you think I care?” snorted Bob.
“Well, you should,” Linda sniffled.
“I don’t care either,” inserted Julie.
“You stay out of this,” Linda snarled.

It’s not. Unfortunately, that’s what too many people do with the advice from Issue #3, when the problem is actually that what you’ve got a classic example of talking heads.

Talking heads is when your characters are just standing around, apparently doing nothing but talking. It’s boring, and it’s unrealistic. People don’t stand around and do nothing while talking. They fidget. They take sips of their drinks. They move around.

“Look, I’m not okay with this.” Linda stood, her chair tipping.
“Do you think I care?” Bob didn’t bother to look up from the letter he was writing.
“Well, you should.” Linda stalked over to the window, folding her arms across her chest.
“I don’t care either,” said Julie, sitting up straighter.
“You stay out of this.” Linda looked away from the rain just long enough to glare at the younger woman.

That’s not an amazing example, but it’s getting better. It’s fine to have a couple lines of dialogue where the characters don’t do anything else, but beyond that it gets boring. It can also help to help internal thoughts or feelings mixed in, depending on what your point of view is.

Well, squiders, did I leave anything out? Other issues with speech tags that you’ve noticed?

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Why They Tell You Not To Use Speech Tags

This advice seems to be everywhere lately, Squiders. Have you seen it? The basic gist is that using speech tags when you write is amateurish and distracting.

I feel like this advice can be really confusing to people, especially newer writers. So! To clarify, this is advice is not telling you to leave off speech tags. Then you get something like this:

“How dare you!” Jenny said.
“How dare you!” said Louise.
“You knew he was my boyfriend! You had no right to invite him to go to that party with you!”
“Hey, you were busy and he was lonely! What’s so bad about keeping a friend happy?”
“Oh, is that what they call it these days.”
“Look, I don’t like your tone.”
“Listen to you! Don’t like my tone. Like you have any room to talk.”
“I have a freaking mansion compared to you!”

Do you see the issue? After a couple lines of dialogue, it becomes near impossible to keep track of who’s actually talking. If your readers have to stop and count to see who’s talking, that’s a bad thing.

So speech tags are good, right? Well, kind of. Here’s an older post about general speech tag usage, but generally you should be conservative with what speech tags you’re using. Or not use them at all!

Here we get into the root of the above advice. You need speech tags to tell who’s talking, but if you overuse them, you get what’s called Talking Heads Syndrome.

Here’s an example of that:

“How dare you!” Jenny said.
“How dare you!” said Louise.
“You knew he was my boyfriend!” Jenny cried. “You had no right to invite him to go to that party with you!”
“Hey, you were busy and he was lonely! What’s so bad about keeping a friend happy?” asked Louise.
“Oh, is that what they call it these days,” said Jenny scornfully.
“Look, I don’t like your tone,” said Louise.
“Listen to you! Don’t like my tone. Like you have any room to talk,” retorted Jenny.
“I have a freaking mansion compared to you!” shouted Louise.

See the problem now, Squiders? We might know who’s saying what, but it gets repetitive and boring, because Jenny and Louise aren’t doing squat except talking. It’s also completely unrealistic, because who just stands there and talks in the middle of a fight?

So when people say ‘don’t use speech tags,” they’re not saying to make it impossible to tell who’s talking. They’re saying to have your characters do something instead of being a talking head.

Jenny pushed through the crowd to Louise. “How dare you!”
Louise pulled away from the girl she’d been talking to, towering over Jenny. “How dare you!”
“You knew he was my boyfriend!” Jenny cried. “You had no right to invite him to go to that party with you!”
“Hey, you were busy and he was lonely! What’s so bad about keeping a friend happy?” Louise smirked at her, and Jenny dug her nails into her palms to keep from hitting her.
“Oh, is that what they call it these days,” said Jenny, letting the scorn drip through her voice.
That got Louise’s full attention. “Look, I don’t like your tone.”
“Listen to you! Don’t like my tone.” Jenny crossed her arms over her chest. “Like you have any room to talk.”
Louise’s eyes flashed. “I have a freaking mansion compared to you!”

Now, that’s a late-night first draft example, but do you see the difference? You know who’s talking through the action, and now it’s much more engaging than just having two people yell at each other. You can use actions, thoughts, etc. instead of speech tags to give a sense of emotion, setting, what have you. And, sure, the odd speech tag can stay. Sometimes people do just say something. But in this case, they’re also doing other things.

Have any thoughts about speech tags, Squiders?

Also, good news! City of Hope and Ruin is now available for pre-order on Amazon! We’ve got it on sale until launch. Only the ebook version is available for pre-order, but there will be physical copies launching at the same time on May 11. And if you missed the excerpt, you can read it here. Pick it up now before the price goes up! (Or wait until we get a cover.)

(It will also be available for pre-order on other ebook platforms, such as Nook and the iBookstore. Lemme know if you prefer one of those and I shall link you.)

Grammar Week: Speech Tags

Ah, speech tags. The lovely bit of any story that tells you who’s talking at any point in time. Easy peasy, right?

No. Apparently not.

Here’s the thing about speech tags. They’re supposed to blend into the background. If you use them right, a reader hardly notices them, aside from gaining the necessary information as to who’s talking.

Let’s talk punctuation. He said, “There’s always a comma between the speech tag and the actual quotation.” This is true in past or present tense. You see, the speech tag is the action, and the quote is an extension. They are not a single thought and should not be presented as such.

Periods and commas always go in the quotation marks. Quotes within quotes use single quotation marks as opposed to double. She says, “Have you ever heard of the expression, ‘never go up against a landsquid when death is on the line’?”

(Landsquid make liberal use of ceiling turtles in conflicts.)

Now, appropriate speech tags. Many people will tell you not to stray much beyond said, asked, or replied. These blend into the action, allowing you to identify the speaker, but don’t distract the reader from what’s happening.

This can be hard for beginning writers to stomach. You’re a writer, after all! You must be creative.

But look at this example: He swallows, “Are you sure?”

Now try to swallow and talk at the same time. I dare you.

Some people get truly ridiculous with the actions they allow to be speech tags, but you will distract your reader if your speech tag is not physically possible. And you never, ever want your reader distracted by your prose.

With the above, you can swallow and then speak, and that’s okay. Same with laughing, smiling, crying, etc. Here is where punctuation is key. He swallows. “Are you sure?” Two separate actions.

The second thing people like to do is add adverbs onto their speech tags. He said loudly. She asked slowly. These are okay in moderation, but your writing will be stronger if you can move that adverb from a telling into a showing role in either your dialogue or action.

For example: “I’ll always be alone,” she said, staring at her hands. See how the dialogue and action takes away the need for a ‘sadly’?

Any questions on how speech tags work? Anything to note?