Talking About Speech

need I say more?

need I say more?

We had a lovely number of newbies show up to check out our meeting yesterday, and the two newbies who came to last month’s meeting returned for this one – both diving in and submitting works for critique.

As always there were plenty of great tips and advice, enough that I might even write some extra posts about some of the other information, but for now, let’s stick with speech tags.

For the beginners out there speech tags are what you use to show who spoke the line of dialogue that just happened(or in some cases is about to happen), for example: ‘Dave said’, or ‘Wendy asked’, or ‘James begged’.

Common writing advice is that when writing for older audiences (YA, New Adult, and Adult) one should avoid using fancy speech tags, such as ‘raged’, ‘demanded’, ‘whined’, and ‘screamed’. Instead stick to the simple stuff like ‘said’, ‘asked’, and ‘replied’. Don’t be tempted to add an adverb on the end either(like ‘she said lovingly’), you might  as well have used the single, stronger word.

The reasoning behind this advice is twofold.

First: your line of dialogue should be written well enough that the reader will automatically read it with the correct tone.

Second: too much usage of these fancier speech tags begins to grate on a reader’s mind, distracting from the actual story. Even more so if some of the tags don’t quite match how they just imagined the line was spoken, or if — in an attempt to not use the same words too often — you get a little too creative and use a word that’s odd for a speech tag, like ‘he dribbled’. While it might fit, one does not typically ‘dribble’ words (though it’s not impossible).

Now, before you go back through your manuscript and replace every instance of ‘declaimed’, ‘shouted’, and ‘hissed’, let me point out I don’t think a totally spartan approach is the right way either. The occasional more adventurous speech tag in the right place, when you want to create a strong impact with that particular line, can really draw attention in a good way. Be careful and sparing with the dramatic tags. Use them like spices in cooking. As one of my writing teachers once told me “Use it like pepper, not potatoes.”

A parting tip to end on, you can skip speech tags all together if you desire. Instead add a bit of action taken by the speaker immediately proceeding or following the line. And when there’s only two speakers, you can just skip the tags entirely after establishing an order as the reader can figure out who is talking by whose turn it is. For example:

“Where did you put the remote?” Gillian looked over to Damon as she dug her hands through the gaps between the couch cushions.

“I left it on the couch.” Damon didn’t shift from his chair, just pointed to the very piece of furniture Gillian was frisking.

“Well it’s clearly not here.”

“Well it’s not like I put it anywhere else.”

See, you can hear the sarcasm dripping off Damon’s response at the end without me putting ‘Damon retorted sarcastically’, and you knew it was Damon by whose turn it was to speak.

Try going through your own manuscript and tinkering with the tags. Or practice with an all new piece. Either way, shouldn’t you be writing right now?

About Kirstie Olley

Kirstie Olley was the President of Vision Writers Group during 2015-2018, has had ten short stories published since joining the group in 2012, has been a finalist in the Aurealis Awards and received multiple honourable mentions in the Writers Of The Future contest. She also blogs and has free fiction at her website
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