Speech Tags or No Speech Tags?

fiction_workshopEach novel manuscript I edit for my day job is a learning experience. It either reveals what doesn’t work in fiction writing or reinforces what does. In this post I want to talk about the speech tag. I briefly wrote about it in this post, but I wanted to expand on some key ideas here.

Why? Because strong dialogue is so important for good fiction. It reveals character, it depicts drama, it reveals vital information, and it pushes the story forward. Used correctly, it can do so much for a story. But use it unwisely, and it can really be a drag.

Of course, the primary purpose of speech tags is to ID the spakers, but I’ll just come right out and ask it. Are speech tags even necessary? What do they accomplish other than giving the reader more words to read? Because, I would argue, there’s a better way if identifying the speakers is the speech tag’s primary purpose.

One key rule to remember in fiction writing is this: The reader leads a busy life and doesn’t want to waste his or her time; hence, you should cut needless words as often as possible.

So if there’s another, better way to reveal the speaker’s ID in dialogue, are speech tags even needed? I believe the answer is no. In fact, I would argue that speech tags should be eliminated as often as possible. Let me explain why.

But first, consider this sample:

Jack looked, and the shadow was there again, capering and undulating at the bottom of the rickety stairs like some sort of otherworldly wraith. Goose bumps peppered his arms. He willed his stiff legs forward, but they wouldn’t budge.

When Nancy grabbed his arm from behind, he nearly squealed like a scared little girl.

“Scared you, huh?” Nancy asked with a chuckle.

“Uh, yeah,” Jack said, trying to breathe again. “You could say that.”

“Is somebody down there?” Nancy asked, peering over his shoulder down the beckoning stairs.

“That’s what I was trying to figure out,” Jack said and thought, When you nearly scared me to death.

OK, let’s break it down.

Only two people populate this suspenseful scene: Jack and Nancy. That fact makes dialogue easier. The reader is smart enough, using story context, to determine who is speaking without speech tags. So, in the spirit of trimming needless words and saving time for the reader, the speech tags can be eliminated completely.

My argument is that if the speaker’s ID is clear, speech tags serve no purpose. Therefore, cut them.

If the speaker’s ID is unclear, what’s a better way than speech tags? Some authors insert action beats, slices of action that can reveal character, give the scene action, and heighten suspense. In fact, I would argue that action beats are a much more effective way.

Here’s how the scene could be written, remembering that economy with words is a worthy goal. I’ve also inserted some words in bold to explain my choices. Be sure to look for the action beats.

Jack looked, and the shadow was there again, capering and undulating at the bottom of the rickety stairs like some sort of otherworldly wraith. Goose bumps peppered his arms. He willed his stiff legs forward, but they wouldn’t budge.

When Nancy grabbed his arm from behind, he nearly squealed like a scared little girl. [OK, so we have established the two characters in this scene as well as point of view.]

“Scared you, huh?” She chuckled. [There’s no need to say this is Nancy. Since only two characters populate the story, “she” tells the reader this is Nancy. The word “asked” is also redundant because the dialogue itself shows the reader she asked something. And no, you should never use “chuckled” as a speech tag, since it’s probably impossible to chuckle words.]

“Uh, yeah.” He tried to breathe. [See, there’s no reason to even insert “said” here. By placing an action beside “he,” the text achieves the same purpose as a speech tag, yet it is more active. “You could say that.”

“Is somebody down there?” She peered over his shoulder down the beckoning stairs. [No speech tag needed. We know this is Nancy, and the action beat gives her something active to do.]

“That’s what I was trying to figure out.” When you nearly scared me to death, he thought.

Do you see what I did? Each use of “said” is now gone. There’s simply no reason to “tell” the reader so-and-so said something when you can “show” this instead. Remember, in good fiction it’s always better to show than to tell.

Action beats are great in fiction, and if you attach a character’s name to them, there’s no reason to use speech tags. Voila! Now you have a scene that is more active but with fewer words. Action beats have replaced speech tags. Always remember: in good fiction, less is more.

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4 thoughts on “Speech Tags or No Speech Tags?

  1. Bethany Macmanus

    Adam, I am a firm believer in less is more when it comes to speech tags. I love the way you illustrated this. In fact, when I read to my kids, I leave the tags off on purpose, and the kids understand the story just fine! 🙂 [well, I THINK they do…they never ask questions that show they are confused…lol]
    Great post!

  2. Heather Day Gilbert

    Great tip, Adam, and even though I started out my writing dialogue tagging everything, I’ve since learned it’s not necessary. I still don’t mind reading books with it…I’m nostalgic that way since I love classics, etc. And sometimes you MUST tag when there are more than three people talking. I’ve also found that when your books are read as audio, that can also get confusing if you have nothing but rapid-fire action/dialogue sans tags. Still, usually the book narrator can change voices so listeners know who’s talking. MUCH to think about and I think we each kind of develop our own style as authors. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Adam Blumer Post author

    Thanks for writing, Heather. Even with three or more characters, you can still ID without speech tags, though that is perhaps the simplest way. And you certainly don’t want to confuse your readers.

  4. Adam Blumer Post author

    Thanks for writing, Bethany! I read so many manuscripts and see this problem cropping up almost every day. Readers have enough to do and don’t want to waste their time on extra words. Less is definitely more.

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