Speech Tags in Writing

Speech Tags in WritingWe’re all familiar with speech tags. While we may not always notice them when reading, they can become somewhat of a pain when writing. To balance the amount of them, to insert appropriate adjectives and verbs, to ensure that they reduce confusion instead of enhancing it—these are all things that writers face.

Speech tags may seem like a small thing when compared to the rest of the manuscript, which includes world building, character creation, adequate structure, and all the rest, but they can play an important role in the success, or failure, or a story.

The most common are “he said”, and “she said”, and “he replied”, and “she replied” are a close second. But when you are writing a long and complicated dialogue session, these become irritating, dull, and even redundant. Therefore, how do you improve the readability while making sure that the reader knows who is speaking?

Pay attention to those around you during a conversation. Often, there are movements, actions, and tones that accompany words. No one really just sits there immobile while speaking, especially if the conversation is intriguing and inviting. You will notice that someone will reply as they brush hair away from their face, or sigh while listening to a retort. When agitated, someone may uncross their legs or even pace around the room. These are all actions that can add meat to your speech tags.

For example:

  • “There is more than one way to catch a thief!”, she said.
  • “There is more than one way to catch a thief!”, she replied haughtily.
  • “There is more than one way to catch a thief!”, she answered as she paced the room.
  • “There is more than one way to catch a thief!”, she quipped as she leafed through the pages.
  • “There is more than one way to catch a thief!”, she answered quietly, her soulful eyes glazed over in thought.

Each one implies a slightly different tone. “Said” on its own tells you nothing except that it was said.

Adding an adjective delivers a more emotional sense, allowing the reader to hear how the words are being said.

Adding a verb stimulates the reader visually, letting them picture the speaker.

Adding a noun paired with a verb enhances the action, giving a setting and substance to the situation.

Adding a description enables the reader to become the speaker. They know the feeling (or the action), and can relate to it.

Using these tools can help you to create better dialogue, as well as to subtly describe the setting, character emotion, and the gravity (or hilarity) of the situation.

As writers, we strive to touch all of the senses of our readers, but to do so with outright description written in large, random chunks often slackens the reader’s interest. Why? Because they want to be fed the story bit by bit, not all at once. So, we have to get creative.

What many writers don’t realize is that in order to write well, we must become masters of observation. We must take note of the actions of others, their reactions, their tones, their quirks, and anything else. We must people-watch, we must always be aware. If not, when we try to write, it will come out as an awkward mess or an unpolished text.

Do you think of yourself as a master of observation? Are speech tags something that you struggle with? What are some of the best, and worst, speech tags you can remember?

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12 thoughts on “Speech Tags in Writing

  1. I’ve been criticized with putting in too many speech tags of variety – remembering back to my list of “other words for ‘said'” from school, I usually try not to just use ‘said’. Objected, seethed, spat, bellowed, cried, called, growled, grumbled, murmured, whispered, brayed, hissed, yowled, cursed, scoffed, leered…I could list so many more, of course. There’s hundreds. The criticism was that ‘said’ is easier for readers and should be used primarily unless the way they said it is quite important or else there’s a deep need to break up the saids. I disagree with this comment – your thoughts?
    On another note, I’ve also been told I should block more when writing dialogue-heavy parts – I am poor at this, but you’re entirely right and so are they; people -move- when they speak. I just forget to put that in.

    • Hmm, I think that you need to be sparse with diverse tags, but that they are appropriate when trying to enhance the setting or emotion of the situation. They also help when a long conversation is occurring and there are already too many “said”s.

      My rule when listening to writing rules is to listen to none of them. There are obvious things that you should do, such as use correct spelling, grammar, and punctuation, but everything else is just a note about what worked for someone else.

      In my opinion, it’s best to switch it up. A whole conversation gets a little too intense if every sentence ends with “growled”, “hollered”, “cried”. That’s where movements come in. Substitute some of your speech tags with movements to soften them and to add to the scene and you should find a better balance.

  2. I’m in the habit of suggesting who is speaking after the start of scene and just using actions of what they are doing from then on, skipping using the tags altogether after a while. I normally hardly notice tags as a reader just noticing the tone of everything I guess…

    • That can work in conversations between two people, but with three or more it becomes complicated. I notice tags as a reader because they indicate who is speaking, which can sometimes be lost in actions or descriptions.

      • It’s a bit of a copout I guess, but I find at least part of the confusion is lifted in those sort of scenes if each of your characters has a very unique way of speaking. Of course to be realistic they can’t all have odd dialects, but all in all I try to use the tags when there is a shift in who is speaking within a conversation. I’m a lot more shy about adverbs now since they seem to be every writing sites shorthand for lazy writing ( even though I actually love them in most dialogue instances) 😦

      • That’s true. It’s easy to tell when a character with an accent or a speech-related quirk is speaking, but like you said, having each person speaking have an accent is just as complicated as having no speech tags at all if there are more than two parties.

  3. Great post! I particularly your comment, “What many writers don’t realize is that in order to write well, we must become masters of observation.” This is something that surprised me when I first started writing fiction.

    As for tags, I largely avoid them nowadays, preferring actions instead to indicate who is doing the talking. Take the following example:

    The two of them sat down at the table. He stared at the woman. “Well? Are you in or out?”
    She picked an invisible thread from her dress and shifted her weight on her seat. “I’m in.”
    “Great! Shall we start, then?”
    She pushed the table away. “Let’s.”

    I haven’t used any actual tags, but it’s easy to tell who’s talking. Notice also how you can get away with any form of tags in cases of rapid dialogue between two people, as I did in the third sentence.

    • Yes, that’s another way to do it, although a little more advanced I think than other ways. It takes skill to fit those actions in without them becoming jarring. I do love when I read dialogue written in that way though, it’s so simple, yet so pointed.

      Thanks for reading my post, and for your input. Perhaps I’ll have to write a post about speech tags for the advanced writer at some point! 🙂

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