A friend of mine–who is rather a darling–has asked me to write about these things known as speech tags and explain it all in detail.
Well, I don’t know really what to say about them. I’m not a world expert. Though yes, I was a respected book critic for twenty-some years though, so supposedly I do have a clue or three about literary technique and style.
(But there’s probably lots to be said about them and I’ll probably only be skating over the surface. Nevermind.)
(And I’ll be frank–if anyone wildly disagrees with what I say, I don’t care. And I am so not interested in an argument about this or any thing that if anyone is after that, I suggest they find an angry wasp or something…Life being too short and all that.)
So speech tags. What are they and what purpose do they serve?
At the basic level they are nothing more than a means of identifying the speaker.
We, the readers, already know the difference between setting or description and dialogue, because we’re all very clever, and because the text identifies dialogue by speech marks (I believe in the US, these are called quotation marks).
So those little suckers are the giveaway–someone is talking. And probably not to himself.
And let’s imagine we have this conversation which is maybe even a quick-fire round of quipping and teasing. The first and foremost job of the speech tag is to identify the different speakers.
Now obviously, if you are Shakespeare and you’re adept at writing dialogue that is so individually distinctive–as he did in Henry V, with Fluellen especially–then you don’t need to worry about speech tags or even consider them. Your readers will know who’s speaking from the second word of every speech.
However, for the rest of us…
Anyway, quite often, one will have effectively captured mood and character and all that, so that a speech tag is unnecessary. The reader knows exactly who’s speaking because that’s how they talk and it’s so obvious through their word choice or syntax that they can’t be mistaken for any other character.
But because I like to make things easy for readers (sometimes) even in that case, I would use one at least about every four or five lines, just to keep it clear for the reader.
So that’s the basic reason for deploying the little chaps.
But beyond that, there’s a whole wealth of mood, emphasis, emotion, and all sorts of other things that can be conveyed beyond the identity of the speaker.
Search out the synonyms of ‘said’ in a thesaurus and what have you got: murmured, mumbled, muttered, whined, complained, demanded, exclaimed, whispered, shouted, yelled, burbled, snapped, scolded, barked…
And each of those communicates something far beyond the identity of the speaker. Those words tell the reader mood, they express ‘how’ the words were said, they even–some of them–carry the tone of voice…
These are powerful words. These help us build a character.
For example, if one has a female character and she’s forever scolding, whining, tittering, snapping, and complaining, is the reader inclined to like her? To engage with her? Or to hold a negative view of her?
Because you see, like people, words have emotional baggage attached.
Those synonyms listed just above, they carry a wealth of meaning beyond just what’s on the page–we can hear them, we know the tone of voice regardless of what accent we speak with, we can even feel them grating on our nerves.
And so whilst I wouldn’t overload a text with these, I certainly wouldn’t avoid them or hesitate to use them for fear of some ‘style police’.
I mean, we’re not, I assume, writing primers for five-year-olds and needs must reduce everything to the easiest and most simplistic.
Obviously, one should be careful not to overdo. And it may be that once one has established character in the first fifty pages or so, fewer speech labels will be necessary, because the character’s dialogue will convey all those messages of tone and emotion without our needing to spell it out.
Below, I’m including a passage from Dorothy Dunnett’s novel, Gemini, to illustrate the former method:
Her voice had hurried a little. Gelis said, ’It’s all right. I thought of it too, Esota.’ The woman who had been understanding and friendly–too friendly–to a very young child then called Claes.
Kathi said, ‘It wasn’t all bad. It was just a pity she didn’t find her own Tristan to make love to. Being stuck with King Mark de Fleury would make anyone odd. And speaking of oddities: what do you think the Princess will do now she’s widowed? She didn’t mind being married to Hamilton, but he was the King’s choice, not hers.’
‘And now she has a chance to show her independence,’ Gelis said. ‘Nicholas thinks she’ll demand some sort of security for the Boyd children–she’ll have to bring them up with the Hamiltons, anyway, without a husband to finance them.’
‘That’s what my uncle expects,’ Kathi said.
And there you have it, each speaker clearly identified for the reader. And in Dunnett’s hands, the word ‘said’ is such a part of the wallpaper, the fact is, we almost don’t see it, we barely notice it, it’s just there for clarity and it works just as it ought.
Here is Charles Dickens’ use of speech tags, from Martin Chuzzlewit:
‘Was it in Pecksniff’s parlour?’ said Tigg.
‘In Pecksniff’s parlour!’ echoed Jonas, fetching a long breath. ‘You don’t mean when–’
‘Yes,’ cried Tigg, ‘when there was a very charming and delightful little family party, at which yourself and your respected father assisted.’
‘Well, never mind him,’ said Jonas. ‘He’s dead, and there’s no help for it.’
‘Dead, is he!’ cried Tigg. ‘Venerable old gentleman, is he dead! You’re very like him.’
Jonas received this compliment with anything but a good grace…
(N.B. Victorian novelists often use ‘cried’ for ‘said’. It’s very common–but it’s my impression that for a modern audience it’s a little too Victorian melodramatic to work well…it seems to be overstating the case, where understatement might–to our ears–be more effective.)
Patrick O’Brian, on the other hand, often doesn’t use speech tags at all, and leaves it all to the reader to sort out for themselves. And given that he is so enduringly popular, it’s possible that our readers do not need as much hand-holding as we imagine they do. Here’s a passage from The Nutmeg of Consolation:
‘Firkins is cousin to Lowe and he is connected with the whole Macarthur tribe. What in Heaven’s name possessed you to run the fellow through the body?’
‘I did not run him through the body. I pierced his sword-arm, little more; which was moderate enough, I believe. After all he had knocked my wig off.’
‘But surely he did not just walk up to you and do so without there had been some words beforehand, some quarrel?’
‘I only told him during the course of that dismal feast that Banks did not choose to be acquainted with a man like Macarthur. He brooded over that for the rest of the meal and attacked me as I walked down the steps.’
‘It was most irregular. If you had killed him without calling him out in due form, without seconds, there would have been the devil to pay.’
‘If it had been a regular encounter I could scarcely have closed and dashed my hilt in his face, which brought him up with a round hitch. Besides a formal meeting would have made much more noise–would have done the lout too much honour. But I do admit that it was a sorry performance: I am very sorry for it, Jack, and I ask your pardon.’
And there, at the last, is yet another manner of identifying the speaker: the insertion of the listener’s name. In this case, it was Stephen Maturin, speaking to his friend, Jack Aubrey. But other than that, O’Brian relies on the reader’s knowledge of and affection for his characters and doesn’t interject speech tags.
Does it work? His success would suggest it does.
And here is a final scene for your consideration. This time written by self. From the book, Of Honest Fame. And in it, I used speech tags (and adverbs, haha), or sometimes something altogether different, to create mood as well as to identify the speakers.
“Right,” Jesuadon concluded. Apathy, apathy. I would spell the death of them all. “Anything else? Do we know where else he might have gone? His contacts? No? Find out.”
Barnet nodded and drank down the last of his ale, holding it for a long moment in his mouth before swallowing, then motioned to the tapster for another. He slid a coin across the bar-surface, then leaning heavily on the bar, regarded the head of foam on his refilled tankard with affection. And then, softly, sweetly even, he murmured, “Tom Ladyman’s brung you a parcel.”
Jesuadon, in the act of downing a glass of porter, narrowed his gaze in surprise. “What?”
“Tom Ladyman’s gone and brung you a parcel,” Barnet repeated. And there was a thread of humour in his quiet voice.
His voice now higher: “I beg your pardon?” Jesuadon gaped. This was too much. “What in the devil is Tom Ladyman doing this far north?” he ground out. “He’s meant to be down in Hampshire, the plaguey sauce box!”
His companion slanted him a glance, the first of the evening. “‘Tis a very special parcel,” he averred, giving a quick nod of approval. And again that thread of humour. “‘Tis waiting for you at Sparrowhawk’s, from what I hear.”
Jesuadon’s temper snapped, that edge of temper which had been threatening all day to break out, now wholly erupting. “What the devil is all the buggeration about parcels, you fecking poxy quire?”
The lashless man, who had been savouring his information, treasuring it, enjoying it as a sweetmeat in Lent, smiled, showing his decaying teeth. “‘Tis a lady,” he said, with a swift appreciative wink.
Jesuadon looked at him hard, fury mounting. “What in the name of all that’s holy would Tom Ladyman bring me a woman for?” he barked.
The repellent, confident smile grew. “Well, now, it would appear he grew tired of waiting for the weather to clear, what with Warne being none so keen to take shipments in the rain, as I understand it. On account of the paths through the Forest being so mired and all. So he’s took to the High Toby…and as chance would have it, he’s brung you a lady,” Barnet said airily. And added: “Perhaps he knows more o’ your habits than me…”
Jesuadon nearly screeched: “Taken to the High Toby? What?” In sudden rage, Jesuadon caught at his hair. “Tom Ladyman is a hell-born babe and a cursed idiot, and the devil may fly away with him! Od’s my life, it is bad enough having old Charlie Flint sending the Revenue Officers off in every direction to keep that fool from harm. But now he’s meant to interfere in Bow Street’s business as well, is he, to protect that bloody young lobcock? I shall damned well kill him for this!”
I don’t know. I quite like–have always liked–that scene. Indeed, it’s one of my favourites. And I’ve always thought the key to it was balance. Yes, there is dialogue, but it’s peppered with action and emotion. There’s nothing static about it.
Then too, I think that excerpt may illustrate how one can identify the speakers without always relying on he said and she said. And one can vary the methods used to identify speaker. There’s ‘said’. But there’s also those other ‘said’ synonyms.
There’s the odd use of the effective adverb too.
Yes, I’ve heard–more times than I’ve had hot breakfasts–of the modern diktat against adverbs.
And let me tell you, that’s just silly. No writer worth their salt is afraid to use any part of the language. Employed properly and well, just like everything else, adverbs are invaluable. I wouldn’t recommend drowning your text in the things, but use them when you need to.
I mean, compare and contrast:
“No,” she said vaguely.
“No,” he said hotly.
“No,” he said patiently.
In your mind, did those all not sound differently, perhaps with quite distinct inflections? They did. Of course, they did.
So, when you need an adverb to individualise that tag, use it. (If you find yourself over-adverbing, I’d suggest taking out half of them on every page.)
And that’s what I know about speech tags.
Which can be summed up: have more than one method in your quiver and use what works best at any given time. What creates the mood you the writer want and need? And don’t get stuck in a rut…
If you find yourself in a rut and everything’s reading the same, then vary your speech tags with actions or expressions and however many times you need to rewrite to get the scene right and as strong as you can make it, that’s the right number of times to rewrite…