13. Fiction Crimes Part 5: Flashy Speech Tags

Author: Nola Published: about 3 years ago.
Tags: fiction, dialogue, speech, speech tags Category: Writing tips

Well-written dialogue can add texture and realism to your story. It helps readers learn more about the characters and puts them in the middle of the action. However, poor dialogue can make your manuscript groan rather than sing. The humble speech tag or dialogue tag (e.g. he said) is often the difference.

Consider the following exchange:

‘I’m hungry,’ Angelina announced. ‘Let’s get some lunch,’ Brad replied. ‘Where do you want to go?’ Angelina questioned. ‘How about over there?’ Brad responded. ‘I hope they have gluten-free,’ Angelina worried. ‘Only one way to find out,’ Brad remarked.

You’ll be happy to know this is not an extract from my novel. There are at least three problems with it.

  • The author is trying to vary the writing by using words other than 'said'. As a general rule, variety’s a good thing. However, the words in this example draw attention to themselves rather than the dialogue.
  • By using a speech tag after each statement or question, it sounds telegraphic and detracts from the natural flow of the conversation.
  • While the use of 'worried' in the fifth line shows what Angelina was feeling, it does not denote speech.

Solution

Now consider this revision:

Angelina’s stomach growled. ‘I’m hungry.’ ‘Let’s get some lunch,’ Brad said. ‘Where do you want to go?’ Brad pointed to the café across the road. ‘How about over there?’ ‘I hope they have gluten-free,’ Angelina said as she wrung her hands. ‘Only one way to find out.’

This passage may not win a Pulitzer Prize, but it’s an improvement. Here are some reasons why.

  • As 'said' is a more common and neutral word, it doesn’t detract from the dialogue. Sometimes it’s appropriate to use a more specific term (e.g. yelled, whispered, stammered), but don’t overdo it.
  • Deleting the dialogue tags from some lines aids the flow and makes it sound more like a conversation. In a two-person speech, it’s usually easy to tell who’s speaking, so you only need to remind the reader now and again.
  • The inclusion of actions (e.g. 'Brad pointed to the café') shows us who is speaking and what is happening rather than telling us.
  • Replacing 'Angelina worried' with 'Angelina said as she wrung her hands' gets rid of the inaccurate speech word (worried) while also showing us what she is feeling. If I fleshed out this scene a bit more, I would try to think of a better way of depicting worry, but it illustrates a point. Wherever possible, show rather than tell.

Why not look back at one of your manuscripts and see if you can add more spark to your dialogue. Alternatively, finish the conversation I started above. I can’t wait to hear if Angelina got that gluten-free treat.

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