The Dreaded Speech Tag

17.04.2018 |

Episode #3 of the course Ten editing techniques to perfect your fiction writing by K.C. Finn


When I was a kid, I can remember being told to stop using the word “said” all the time in my stories. We were encouraged to use as many different speech tags as possible to describe dialogue, including “yelled,” “demanded,” and my favorite at the time, “urged.” But in professional fiction writing, speech tags only serve as a lazy way of describing the speaker without really bringing them to life. Take a look at these examples to see what I mean:

1. “Give it to me,” David demanded.

2. David held out his hand, his narrow eyes shining like bullets. “Give it to me.”

In the second example, it’s much easier to imagine how David stands, and you get more of an atmosphere from his dialogue because of that. You’ll notice that you also don’t need the speech tag to indicate who is talking in this example, thanks to the clever arrangement of the dialogue within the paragraph structure.

So, here’s your editing checklist for removing speech tags and improving the dynamism of your text at the same time:

Search and destroy: Fortunately, speech tags are really easy to spot when you’re editing, because they stick to your dialogue like limpets (and are equally inanimate!). You could use the Find feature that we discussed in Lesson 2, searching for the word “said,” for example. You’ll be shocked at how many hundreds of hits you get! However, you can choose to find them, home in on your speech tags one at a time, and follow the rest of this method for each one.

Identify intention: What’s the intended effect of this dialogue line? Check what kind of tag you’re using. Is it aggressive (“yelled”)? Fearful (“screamed”)? Attractive (“purred”)? Make a note.

Look who’s talking: Who is the speaker? Is it clear that they’re speaking without the text using their name? If not, make a note of the speaker too.

Get physical: Now that you have the piece of speech, the intent, and the speaker, go back into your text and rework a line immediately before or after the dialogue to bring it to life. Think about a physical action or description that will get your intended effect across, and if you need to name the speaker clearly, do so.

Here are two examples of how the method works, so you can try it for yourself!

Example 1:

Original text:

“Get off me!” cried the little boy.

Method analysis:

Dialogue: “Get off me!”

Intent: Fearful

Speaker: Little boy

Improved version:

The little boy’s eyes were wide as saucers. His lips trembled as his shrill voice filled the air. “Get off me!”


Example 2:

Original text:

“Why don’t you sit a little closer?” Tanya purred.

Method analysis:

Dialogue: “Why don’t you sit a little closer?”

Intent: Attractive

Speaker: Tanya

Improved version:

Tanya patted the velvet seat beside her, dark lashes fluttering like the wings of a butterfly. “Why don’t you sit a little closer?”

This is one of those techniques where you get better at it the more you do it, and soon you’ll be writing automatically without using tags, which cuts a lot of editing time down for future books! Have a go at a few pages from your latest work before tomorrow, and watch your story reach new heights of life.

Tomorrow, we take a step away from dialogue and examine the paragraphs in between. We’re going to use an analysis of topic to be sure that paragraphs flow properly into one another, so as not to confuse our readers!

Until then, happy de-tagging!



Recommended reading

Laura Drake provides some really dynamic examples of how to bring a scene to life by replacing dialogue tags with action. Check out her example list over at Writers in the Storm.


Recommended book

Writing Fiction: The Practical Guide from New York’s Acclaimed Creative Writing School by Gotham Writers’ Workshop


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