She asked, he said – speech tags in the real world

speech tagsSpeech tags should be simple to get right with a bit of practice. Of course things aren’t always that simple, and hearing a piece of mine performed recently by an actor (see Rulebook – a Doctor Who story) made me realise I can do better. Before we dive in, you might find it useful to reflect on your own writing.

What are speech tags

In case you’re confused, speech tags are the snippets that qualify a piece of quoted speech, such as said, asked, whispered, shouted and so on. The rules for using them should be simple…

My rules

I try to keep things simple:

  • Avoid tags as much as possible to keep the story flowing
  • Use tags when needed to clarify who has spoken. This is more important if there are more than two speakers
  • Always put the subject first, this is more active. By this I mean:
    • “Stand still,” she said. The alternative “Stand still,” said she is obviously incorrect
    • Names get treated differently by some people “Who are you?” Sheila asked and “Who are you?” asked Sheila
  • Only use said and asked.

The last of these pains me most; I have reviewed stories where people swallow a thesaurus and in one page I get said, shouted, spoke, murmured and a half-dozen other choices. All very irritating.

The real world

On a first draft I tend to write the speech and only tag the opening salvo in a conversation. On a revised draft I put in some more saids and askeds to clarifiy who is speaking.

[pullquote]know your medium[/pullquote]

Hearing an actor perform my story it was painful at times. I had far too many she said he said sequences. Chatting to the director this is not uncommon. When the story is being read by a skilled voice artist, it is very clear who is meant to be speaking most of the time. A lesson here is know your medium. Much easier with scripted drama as there are no tags!

Sometimes you need some variety, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of she asked, he replied. The very odd whispered or shouted may not hurt either. Tags can also be qualified to spell out some action, and even (though I avoid as well) add an adverb.

The learning point for me is absolute rules get in the way of good writing. It is much better to strip back as many writers used these badly. They do have a place (and I caught a few in a recent Stephen King novel) and maybe I should be less strict.

You might find the post: He Said, She Said: Dialog Tags and Using Them Effectively by DM Johnson relevant if you want further thoughts on this topic.

What are your thoughts / experiences? Let me know!



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