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Speech tags--why the hate?

Discussion in 'Writing Discussions' started by Nameback, Jul 10, 2013.

  1. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

    I see a consistent opinion that speech tags are Bad News, but honestly I don't really understand why. I agree that they can be avoided when it's clear who's talking--like in a two-person conversation--but personally I opt for more tags rather than fewer.

    I've never read a book and thought to myself "man, all these speech tags are really annoying!" They are a part of writing that tends to fade out of the reader's perception. You read over them and know who's talking, but they often don't really register consciously the way that the actual dialogue does.

    I have, however, often read a book and thought to myself "man, this is the third time I've read this section and I still don't know who's talking." And that does take me out of the story. It's profoundly annoying, and in the worst case it confuses me about important plot or character details.

    Unless you're Cormac McCarthy, I don't really understand why it's worth the effort to purge these from your writing. It seems like something that would only be merited by an attempt at literary prose in a style that was purposefully sparse. Considering that most of us wouldn't consider our works "literature," and aren't written in that style, it seems weird to prioritize a style point that often detracts from the mechanics of reading the book. The benefit must be greater than that cost of clarity. I don't see that being possible unless your specific voice is complemented by such a thing. It does not seem like blanket advice for all writers, to me.

    My rules:

    I'm fine excluding tags in two-person conversations after establishing the speakers:

    "Blah blah" X said
    "Yadda Yadda" Y said
    "Blah blah blah"
    "Yadda yadda yadda"

    For three-or-more person conversations, I use tags unless there is something in the dialogue that is obviously and only identifying of the speaker.

    "Blah blah" X said
    "Yadda yadda" Y said
    "Derp herp" Z said
    "Yadda yadda [thing only Y would say]"
    "Blah blah blah" X said

    If there is a break in dialogue, even two-person conversations, then I resume tagging.

    "Blah blah"
    "Derp derp"

    He gazed longly into her eyes as she derped and herped, and felt as if she only derped for him, as if she could only derp for him. She had herps for no one else.

    "Herp derp!" Z said.

    I've never received complaints for this.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2013
    Weaver likes this.
  2. Jabrosky

    Jabrosky Banned

    I've never heard that speech tags as a whole are frowned upon. Usually what people object to are permutations of "said" (e.g. chortle, yell, reply).
  3. TheokinsJ

    TheokinsJ Troubadour

    I know many people will disagree with me and tell me I'm wrong, and I know there's no 'right' way of doing it, but I've come to the belief that putting 'said' on the end of dialogue should be done least as possible.
    For example; "You know the old man over there?" said bill, "He used to live in my street".
    rather than; "You know that old man over there? He used to live in my street" said Bill.

    The reason people get annoyed at speech tags is because people take no notice of them. No one wants to see them, they only care about the dialogue and who's saying what. Therefor, having a long section of dialogue by a character is really annoying to the reader if you put 'said' on the very end of it, because the reader wants to find out who the hell is talking as soon as possible, rather than having to wait all the way till the end to find 'said ...', makes sense?
    Alternatively, using character actions can also be a good way of determining dialogue.
    For example; bill wiped the mud from his boots, "blahblahblah...", however this one should be used more scarcely.
    If you are really good at dialogue and the way your characters speak is very distinctive, then just simply putting the dialogue and a full stop afterwards is sufficient. Remember, the only reason we have speech tags is to find out who's speaking, people don't care about how you do it, only that it is quick to read and lets them know as soon as possible who is talking.
  4. Mythopoet

    Mythopoet Auror

    Because people in the industry don't understand readers and publishers want all writers to be the same so that they are easier to harvest and exploit.
    Nameback likes this.
  5. Butterfly

    Butterfly Auror

    Or maybe it's because they know what creates a compelling narrative. 'He said, she said,' on every line kind of becomes super repetitive, not to mention it eats into the word count after a whille and kind of increases the need for ink and paper which means higher production costs and less profit and escalates the price on the finished product, which means a lower profit margin and less royalties in your pocket.
  6. PaulineMRoss

    PaulineMRoss Inkling

    When I'm engrossed in reading a story, I find I can only count up to three. So if X and Y are in a conversation, every third time X or Y speaks, I need a speech tag, or some other indication. If there are three people in the conversation, especially if they're all the same gender, I need a speech tag almost every line to keep up, otherwise my brain explodes. And please, please, please - use their names, don't say 'X said' one time, then 'he said' the next, then 'the bearded man said' and so on. Because by that time I'll have forgotten who the hell the bearded man is, and there'll likely be a book/wall incident.
    wordwalker likes this.
  7. Steerpike

    Steerpike Felis amatus Moderator

    I think throwing a tag in every few times the dialogue changes speakers is a good idea. Or you might be able to do it with a beat. As a general rule, I use "said" because that seems best able to convey the information to the reader without interrupting the flow of the story. It is an almost invisible tag that the brain processes.
    Weaver likes this.
  8. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    Where do you see this? I haven't seen this opinion expressed on this site, nor have I read it from any reputable source.

    Anything you do repetitiously is bad. If you put "he said" at the end of a bunch of lines in a row, it calls attention to the writing. Same with if you do dialogue -> he said -> dialogue. Same with beat -> dialogue.

    Your best bet is to vary the location of the speech tag and use of beats.

    Speech tags do, however, offer many opportunities to make you look like a complete amateur including laughable tags like "sighed" (how do you sigh or laugh a word? I can't, though my brother is good a burping words), redundant ones like "exclaimed" after an exclamation mark, and overusing adverbs after the tag.
  9. wordwalker

    wordwalker Auror

    Of course it's a subjective thing. Some readers get more annoyed by some things than others.

    A lot of it is that the structure of dialog (all broken into bite-sized paragraphs, each one with quotes to make you more aware of whether they all have tags) makes us extra-aware of tags, so any pattern that does bother us gets really obvious. Trickier than it looks.

    And I agree with people, we don't want to overtrim and end up with a line that's unclear (including if it's unclear how someone said something, where a "he said through gritted teeth" would really have helped) or the frustration of

    (I also think this works in reverse for sudden moments. Bill shouted "Duck!" sounds like we were watching Bill and expecting him to shout, but "Duck!" shouted Bill has that half-instant sense of "What, a shout? who? oh, it's Bill.")

    Still, most problem can be solved if we stay aware that we have at least four types of options:

    • No tag-- simplest (unless the speaker or style are unclear)
    • Said-- easy way to add a little clarity (unless it's underwhelming on an intense moment: "BASTARD!" he said doesn't work so well)
    • "Supersaid" (chortled, said softly, etc)-- extra emphasis and clarity but very easy to overuse
    • Beat ("She drew her sword.")-- maybe the strongest and most organic, but takes more effort

    I think most tag problems come from writers not keeping their range of options open, and overusing one or two types.

    Edit: And, I'm right there with Pauline that two speakers is the limit for keeping characters straight without tags; if the third settles back while two begin a back-and-forth, that's okay while it lasts, but you want to be clear which two have started the pattern and when the third breaks back into it. Steerpike's got a point too, even alternation should only go so long without some tag/beat to keep us oriented. And don't get me started on how nondialog paragraphs mess up a nice simple alternation...
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2013
  10. TWErvin2

    TWErvin2 Auror

    The point of a dialouge tag is to inform the reader who is doing the talking, and the goal is to do it in such a way that the flow of the story and dialogue isn't interrupted or intruded upon.

    Use as many tags that are necessary. Using 'said' is fine. It's as close to invisible in the context of the story as can be achieved when using a dialogue tag.

    That there is a concensus or consistent opinion that dialouge tags are bad news is news to me. They are bad news if used improperly, in an intrusive way.

    As has been said, an author can use the context and exchange of the dialouge to keep the reader abreast of who is saying what. Actions and movement within the paragraph structure can accomplish that as well.

    Find novels/stories you've enjoyed. Examine how that author accomplished dialogue in their stories. Note how they incorporated dialogue tags, among other techniques to keep the reader informed as to which character is saying what.
    Sheilawisz likes this.
  11. C Hollis

    C Hollis Troubadour

    Put me in the camp of "never heard that".

    The word "said" is almost as innocuous as "the". Repeated every other line, yes it becomes more intrusive, but used when it NEEDS to be used; innocuous.

    As others have said, when you try to get cute with dialogue attributions is when the trouble begins.

    "Amy's a snot," she giggled.

    Yeh, see if you can say that and giggle at the same time.

    Read through the dialogue without the attributes, or better yet, have someone else read it. If there is a difficulty relating the dialog to the proper character, add the attribute. Just take care, I gave up reading a book at page 4 when I didn't know who was saying what.

    Just another one of those aspects that takes practice.
  12. Xaysai

    Xaysai Inkling

    I know I'm a rookie, but I find that replacing speech tags with action or beat tags where possible makes for a more compelling story.

    Also, it may just be I'm just more aware of it now, but when I read and see too may speech tags, it's distracting.

    I just read "Railsea" in 2 days (traveling for conferences for work, stuck in airports), and all of the speech tags made me crazy.
  13. Weaver

    Weaver Sage

    I have heard the "speech tags are bad" thing, but mostly from people who are generally idiots anyway -- the same kind of people who think that first-person stories are inherently bad because they're effectively all telling (the MC telling their story), and thus violate the Absolute Law of Show-Don't-Tell... ("Don't tell us that the protagonist has blue eyes -- show us!" Yeah, how's that working out for you so far?)

    In my own writing, I prefer to use speech tags only as necessary to keep track of who's saying what, to add extra information about how they are speaking (not always possible to convey from the words alone, as when a character is being sardonic), or to show action that occurs alone with the speech (not really a speech tag, but the two do often blur into each other). I dislike reading conversations with "X said" after every line, and I also think that placing the tag in the middle of the speech, or even at the beginning, is often a good thing. At the least, do it to mix things up a bit on the flow of the conversation.

    One of my pet peeves: The insistence on using "asked" instead of "said" when a character asks a question. I don't mind "asked" and do use it sometimes myself, but it is not a requirement. The question mark at the end of the sentence is enough, isn't it?
  14. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I got this quote from Self Editing for Fiction Writers. I think it makes a point about the difference between critics (and writers are also critical of other writers work) and everyone else:

    "Mr. [Robert] Ludlum has other peculiarities. For
    example, he hates the "he said" locution and avoids it as
    much as possible. Characters in The Bourne Ultimatum
    seldom "say" anything. Instead, they cry, interject,
    interrupt, muse, state, counter, conclude, mumble,
    whisper (Mr. Ludlum is great on whispers), intone,
    roar, exclaim, fume, explode, mutter. There is one
    especially unforgettable tautology: " 'I repeat,' repeated
    The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk."
    The New York Times Book Review

    To me this means you might manage to have a best seller even using the asinine speech tags in place of said but you'll lose respect among your peers. I want the average person to enjoy my work and earn the respect of the writing community but I'll settle for a best seller.

    Asked Weaver.

    Couldn't resist.
    Last edited: Jul 10, 2013
  15. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I think a lot of this is about your approach to writing.

    If one is primarily motivated by profit, the focus should be: what is the minimum level of work that I need to do to make the book appeal to my audience?

    I respect that approach but can't utilize it myself. My focus is: what is the correct way to do it?

    From my research, I believe that using "said" accomplishes the goals of my writing better in the vast majority of cases than using varied, more colorful, tags would.
  16. Sia

    Sia Sage

    I, personally, don't see a problem with nodding words. I know, it's not physically possible but I don't tend to read it as that is what is being claimed. I automatically interpret a sentence like ' "yadda yadda"" Bill nodded. ' as a short form of ' "yadda yadda" Bill agreed with a nod or ' "yadda-yadda" Bill said and nodded" ' or " 'yadda yadda' " Bill agreed while nodding.

    Crappy examples but you get the idea.
  17. Trick

    Trick Auror

    I have chosen to avoid the non-said tags as well. I think they are unnecessary and more often than not harmful to the writing. I guess my issue lies with someone who says, "The book may sell in the billions, but it's still junk." Is the critic a published author with best sellers and several movie deals? No! So hacks like him can cram it. Constructive criticism during the process of writing, much like you do Brian, is very good and appreciated. I would love to hand you my work and say, "Do your worst." because I know you'll be honest and that's great. But if I sell my books and am hugely successful and critics come out of the wood work to comment on my literary style without being my equal in success, Ill go with the Max Reger response. I'll phone the critic and say, "I am sitting in the smallest room in my house. I have your review in front of me. Soon it will be behind me."
  18. Nameback

    Nameback Troubadour

    I think I posted this OP after reading this quote last night around 4am. Now, given the late hour I might have been delirious and misinterpreted its meaning, and I might have imagined it as belonging to a vast species of its brethren, but I do feel like I've seen permutations of this sentiment before, both on this forum and in many fantasy and sci-fi writing forums/sites/articles/etc.

    That said, I'm glad everyone here seems to basically be agreeing with me because it makes me feel less crazy!
  19. BWFoster78

    BWFoster78 Myth Weaver

    I believe there is merit to your viewpoint. There is a logical consistency in saying:

    My goal is to write books that people read/buy. If people read/buy my books, then my writing is successful, regardless of literary technique.

    On the other hand, I can also agree with the critics who say: crap writing is still crap writing no matter how many people read it.
  20. Penpilot

    Penpilot Staff Article Team

    IMHO use 'said' when you have to and action beats when you can, and it doesn't matter how many of each as long as it's not distracting and the reader can tell who's talking. That last part is the most important part of all.

    I've written chapters and stories where I don't use 'said' at all. Usually, I try to find an action beat if I can, and if it's not possible, I just use 'said'.

    I don't know who says using 'said' is a bad thing, but all you have to do is open up any book, good, bad, or in between in quality to see 'said' is used all the time. To me telling someone to not use 'said' is like telling someone not to use the letter X.

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