“Is it wrong to use the word ‘said” so the reader knows who has just spoken?”

“Should we try to make our speech tags creative to add interest to our writing?”

“What are some problems writers bump into with speech tags?”

Good questions. The biggest problem I’ve seen with speech tags is the almost universal desire to make them interesting. Here’s what can happen…

Impossible tags. “I want to go with you,” she hoped. [The word ‘hope’ is used as a speech tag, but it isn’t. You can’t hope something with your speech.]

A tag plus an “ly”word. “I want to go with you,” she murmered softly. [An adverb to modify the verb used as a speech tag often shows redundancy (you can’t murmer something without speaking softly.)]

A tag out of context. Imagine two people talking about something. Without warning the author writes, “No, no!” shouted Henry. In general, sudden changes in feeling should be substantiated by hints in what the characters are doing and not rely on a speech tag to change the scene.

Too many different tags in a conversation. Sometimes students work so hard at being creative they end up weighing down the conversation with too many tags like “said,” “whispered,” “mumbled,” or even “breathed.”

Too many tags. If you have two people talking to each other, don’t burden your story by saying “he said,” “she said,” back and forth through the story. The dialog should settle who’s talking. If speech tags are needed in a dialog, put them in the first words spoken by each character, and then use other ways if needed to make it clear who is speaking.

“Said” is a good word. It’s an inconspicuous word, “said” is, so if you feel you must tell the reader who is speaking, you can use “said” without weighting down your conversation.

Group conversation. If you have three or more people speaking in a conversation, it’s much harder to avoid confusion without speech tags. So you’re stuck with them–unless you can identify the speaker on some other way such as describing an action by the person before the words are spoken. (John scratched his chin with his ball point pen. “I should think we need to…”)

Read a bit of Hemingway and notice how he dodges speech tags. Pick up a cheap novel and notice that dialog usually has more tags. Read books by your favorite authors and pay special attention to how they use speech tags. If there are too many, too often, look for a better author!

Joyce Griffith

Brought to you compliments of Griffith Publishing