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Speech tags -- how to use them in your writing


Ariion Kathleen Brindley


Little girl having a discussion with the Virgin Mary

Little girl having a discussion with the Virgin Mary

Photo credit: Andrew Cusack www.andrewcusack.com






The most common mistake I see with beginning writers, is trying to pack too much into a speech tag.

You should always use “he said/she said” for speech tags. Anything else will distract the reader.

For example, in the following exchange;

                          “I will write in any style I want,” he warned.

                          “I hope you do,” she urged.

It’s true; the writer seems to get a bit more mileage out of these speech tags, but what happens in the reader’s mind? He or she stops to think about “warned” and “urged”.

If we change to the standard format;

                          “I will write in any style I want,” he said.

                          “I hope you do,” she said.

Then the speech tags disappear and the reader goes smoothly on through the conversation. By “disappear” I mean that the reader sees them, and without stopping to think about it, assigns the line of dialogue to the proper character.








There are a couple of exceptions to the “he said/she said” rule. If the line of dialogue is a question, then use “he asked/she asked”. The second exception is when there are more than two people engaged in the conversation. Then you must use the format “Bill said/Mary said/Jack said” unless it’s obvious who the speaker is. This becomes boring and repetitious for the writer, but the reader will quickly lose track of the speakers if you don’t make it clear.

Your dialogue will be much more lively if you replace the speech tags with bits of action. For example;

                          “I will write in any style I want.” Bill folded his arms across his chest.

                          “I hope you do.” Mary crushed her cigarette out in the ashtray.

Don’t use action on every line of dialogue; that will annoy the reader after a while. Write in some action or movement on approximately every sixth or seventh line of dialogue.

Leave off the speech tag or action completely anytime it’s obvious who is speaking.

                          “I will write in any style I want.” Bill folded his arms across his chest.

                          “I hope you do.” Mary crushed her cigarette out in the ashtray.

                          “Okay, now that we settled that, what’s for dinner?”

                          “It’s your turn to cook.”

                          “Then I guess it will be sandwiches and chips,” he said.

                          “Hmm, how about if I take you out to Bistro Louie?”

                          “Only if it counts as my cooking night.” He stood and held his hand out to her.



If plot is the lifeblood of a story, then dialogue is the pulse. Make it crisp and lively.


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Two girls wearing ice skates in animated conversation

Two girls wearing ice skates having an animated conversation

Photo credit: The Washington Post loudounextra.washingtonpost.com



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