Most, if not all, of writers have struggled with the question of where speech tags should be used, and when they should not be used. It’s so easy to overuse speech tags and draw your reader out of the story, not use enough, and cause confusion about who is speaking, and even use the wrong speech tags when they are necessary.
In this post, I hope to clear up some confusion concerning speech tags, and help you find out where and how you should use them.
1: ‘Said’ Is Not A Taboo Word
Most of us, if not all, have heard that the word ‘said’ is a filler word, and should be avoided at all cost. Should we avoid using the word ‘said’? Is it really that terrible in your writing to have ‘said’ in it?
Contrary to what you may have heard, it is actually not wrong to use ‘said’ in your writing. In fact, using too many ‘fancy’ tags can clutter your writing, and draw the reader out of the story.
“Hi Jerry!” Exclaimed Mary.
“Hello, Mary,” Responded Jerry.
“How are you?” Quizzed Mary.
“Good,” Countered Jerry.
Reading all those speech tags draws the reader out of the story, causing them to focus on the tags, not on the important thing (which in this example, is the speech). Using the word ‘said’ can help pull out the speech, and still work as designating who’s speaking. Below we use the another example, only this time with the word ‘said’.
“Hey.” Joe said.
“Hi Joe!” Mart said.
See how that draws attention to the speech, and not to the tags? It still designates who is speaking, while not taking away from what is being said.
2: When To Use ‘Fancy’ Speech Tags
Does this mean that all ‘fancy’ speech tags should be replaced with ‘said’? No! In fact, many speech tags can be useful in describing how things are spoken.
‘Fancy’ speech tags, such as retorted, quizzed, lilted, coaxed, and more, can explain a lot to your readers the way the character speaks. If James is angry at Jesse, he may retort back. Mary may coax the kitten to her.
But when should you use these tags? Obviously, as I explained above, you cannot overuse these types of tags, as it can create a cluttered, busy scene which can confuse the reader.
Thus, I believe that these types of tags should be used very rarely. Other sorts of tags, such as asked, exclaimed, and replied are better than fancy tags because they have been used so much. They are practically filler tags like ‘said’.
These ‘fancy’ tags should be used when they are denoting an action, such as our example with Mary.
“Come here, kitty.” Mary coaxed the kitten over.
The word coaxed denotes both how Mary is speaking, and what she is doing. It isn’t just an exciting word being used in an attempt to make it sound more exciting.
In this next example, however, is an unnecessary use of the fancy tag.
“How dare you?!” James retorted back.
True, it is explaining how James is speaking, and it is not necessarily wrong, however, it would help to give your reader a more visual picture of what is happening with James. We know he is angry by the word ‘retort’, but how can we remove the tag ‘retort’, and still show that he is angry? The following example shows how it can be done.
“How dare you?!” James exclaimed, stamping his foot on the ground, his eyes ablaze.
In other words, the word ‘exclaimed’ with the description after it, actually did more for the reader than the word ‘retort’ did. It showed them what James was actually doing, and got across the point that he was angry. This is called by some, “Show, not Tell” and is another subject for another day.
Is this to say that it is wrong or incorrect to use examples like #2? Not at all! In fact, sometimes those sentences can be helpful when not wanting, or needing to explain all the words in example #3. However, in my personal experience, nine times out of ten, it is better to use a sentence like example #3, which both shows what the character is doing, and still portrays his or her voice.
3: When NOT To Use Speech Tags
So we have gone through when to use plain speech tags and fancier speech tags, but what about when NOT to use speech tags? Is it good to ALWAYS use speech tags? Should you rarely use speech tags?
Speech tags can and often are overused. A speech tag is usually only necessary to designate who in fact is speaking.
“How are you?” Jim asked.
“Good! And how are you?” Alex replied.
“I am great.” Jim said.
In this example, we designated who were speaking, Jim and Alex. However, the last speech tag, ‘Jim said’, is not needed, because we know that Jim is the one answering. In the next example, we will fix this.
“How are you?” Jim asked.
“Good! And how are you?” Alex replied.
“I am great.”
This setup works just as well, without confusing the reader, because we already know who is going to answer- Jim! We don’t need to be told that ‘Jim said’ it, because we already know that he said it.
Now sometimes when there are more than two characters in a conversation, speech tags can be tricky.
“Where is Jane?” Michelle asked.
“She’s right here,” Mary said.
“Hi Michelle!” Jane exclaimed.
“Oh, I thought you’d left.” Michelle said.
In this sentence, we almost need all the speech tags to show who is speaking, without getting confused.
However, there are ways to eliminate the common speech tags, and make these sentences more interesting, all the while still pointing out who is who.
“Where is Jane?” Michelle tilted her head to one side questionably.
“She’s right here,” Mary motioned over to Jane.
“Oh, I thought you’d left.” Michelle tapped her foot.
In the above example, we not only removed Jane’s speech tag completely, but showed what all three girls were doing.
Another common way to remove the need for speech tags is by having the character say the other character’s name in their sentence.
“Hey George!” Red smiled.
In example #5, we didn’t need the speech tag showing that George said “Hullo!” because we already know it’s him because Red said his name.
I’m sure there is lots of other techniques for removing speech tags, but these are the main ones that I use, which help me out in my writing immensely.
4: Positioning Speech Tags
So far, I’ve only used one way of positioning speech tags throughout the examples I’ve used. Now, however, I’m going to show you the three ways you can position speech tags.
A: End of the Sentence
This is the one I have been using in the examples, and is probably the most common.
“Hello! How are you?” Jessica said.
The speech tag is at the end of the sentence.
B: Beginning of the Sentence
This position of the tag is probably the most rare.
Linda waved. “Jack! Come over here!”
This can be helpful when you want your readers to think that your character is doing an action before he or she speaks. Visually, we see Linda waving to, then calling Jack.
C: Middle of the Sentence
This one is my personal favorite, as it breaks up a sentence, or a whole chunk of dialog, and makes the sentence, at least in my opinion, more interesting.
Using our examples from uses A and B, I will show how to put a tag in the middle of a sentence, and how it seems to break up the dialog and make it different.
“Hello!” Jessica said, “How are you?”
“Jack!” Linda waved, “Come over here!”
This is especially helpful when there is a huge chunk of dialog that may be necessary, but boring. It can help also to show what a character is doing while they’re speaking, and it can show that the character speaking perhaps paused to take a breath or to think in the middle of speaking.
I hope some of these ideas and tips helped! Feel free to comment below! God bless!