Do speech tags need to be descriptive?

Do you feel the need to be creative or descriptive with your speech tags?

Do you think that ‘said’ or ‘says’ is a bit boring?

Think again.

How does this bit of dialogue sound to you?

‘This is brilliant!’ he enthused.

‘You’re right,’ I agreed.

‘We based it on extensive market research,’ she explained

Does it feel a bit heavy handed?

That’s because the speech tags are doubling up the work the dialogue has already done.

The dialogue has shown us the tone or intent of the person speaking, the speech tag is just hammering in the point, which can be a bit intrusive. It’s like the writer is looking over our shoulder making sure we’ve got it. This can take us out of the moment, breaking the spell of the scene we were immersed in.

A lot of writers I work with fall into this trap. I read a theory somewhere that perhaps we can blame our primary school English teachers who encouraged us to choose creative or expressive verbs for speech tags. While this is a good idea for verb choice in general, speech tags are the exception. Very often, less is more.

The fact is, ‘said’ and ‘says’ are almost invisible.

Our eye skips over them, which gives the actual dialogue prominence. They are a bit like a speech bubble in a cartoon. We don’t register the bubble, we just read the words and know who’s speaking.

Here’s another speech tag choice I come across often.

‘You look silly,’ she chuckled.

‘I do not,’ he sniffed.

‘Yes you do,’ I smiled.

That might sound perfectly fine to you, but here’s the thing: you can’t actually smile, sniff, or chuckle words. Nor can you snort, sneer, shrug or scoff them. These are actions, not ways of speaking.

Not everyone is going to agree with me on this one. I’ve read posts that actually suggest using words like this as a strategy for reducing the use of ‘said’. But I maintain that ‘said’ is lighter on the page than these descriptive actions, which feel a little clunky. (I’m in good company in this opinion.)

There are certainly times when a creative or descriptive speech tag can help, but be careful that they are actually ways of speaking (no shrugging or snorting) and that they are not telling the reader what you’ve just shown them. Otherwise they could be more of a hindrance than a help

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Lu Sexton

Hello, I’m Lu Sexton. I’m an editor and writing coach. I’ve been working with writers like you since 2009 and I love it. My mission is to help you bring out the best in your writing and get you one step closer to being published.

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