Speech Tags in Dialogue

This is one of the areas that authors fall down on most consistently. Inappropriate dialogue tags make your work look amateur and sloppy.  Here are some basic rules to apply to your writing.

There are three speech tags you should use: said, asked, and whispered.

That’s it.

Really.

Do not use: demanded, encouraged, argued, replied, responded, or the other trillion options.

Here is why:

said and asked are almost invisible to readers. They never interrupt the flow, they make the dialogue clear, and they take up  no room. Whispered can be used because it is so specific.

Every single other word interrupts the flow, stops the reader, and, most often, is redundant.

If a character demands something, it should be clear in the sentence. For instance:

“I said do it!”

Why would you add “she demanded” after that? The line itself makes it clear that is what she is doing, so saying it again just clutters up your dialogue.

The same goes for argued.

“No, it isnt. I told you it’s blue. Why do you insist that it isnt?”

Again, it’s clear that this character is arguing. Reiterating it isnt necessary.

If your dialogue is clear enough, the emotions and tone should show up in the words, not in the dialogue tags.

And last, you only need a tag every four or so lines in an A-B conversation i.e. between two characters. If you have more than two characters in a conversation, then you may need a few more tags. But, if you make it clear in the dialogue, then tags may not be necessary:

“Claudia, why the hell would you say that to someone?”

“Because it was the truth, Brian. Because it needed to be said.”

“But it didnt need to be said so bluntly, Claudia.” Michael sat and crossed his arms over his chest. “She deserved at least a bit of sympathy.”

In the above sentences, you know exactly who is talking, and there isn’t one speech tag. You dont need to say “Michael admonished” as a speech tag, because the reader can see by his words that he is admonishing–saying so in a speech tag would be redundant and assumes that the reader isnt smart enough to know that it is an admonishment.

Never assume your reader isn’t smart enough. Write clearly enough they can always follow you, but never write “down” to them. It will lose you readers.

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