Wednesday, October 13, 2010

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

Writing Wednesday

In ideal prose, the dialog is so distinct that the reader knows the identity of the speaker without any additional attribution. In practice, the ideal is rarely achieved and dialog requires attribution.

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

Cardinal Rule: The reader must never be confused about who is speaking.

Strategy: Employ a consistent pattern of attribution so that your readers eyes slide right past the tags.

Attribution Rules
  1. Use said and asked almost all the time. An alternate tag might occasionally be warranted, but you'd better have a very good reason.
  2. Use the form "Fred said", not "said Fred." "Said" comes last in the prepositional form ("said he" sounds archaic). There's no reason not to be consistent (aside from the long fashion of using the said-first form).
  3. Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate).
  4. Use associated beats to convey non-verbal communication and show the emotion state of the speaker. A beat is a sentence in the same paragraph as the dialog that describes what the speaker is doing or feeling.
  5. Omit speech tags when it's clear who is speaking. Use tags or beats to identify the speakers periodically so that the reader doesn't lose track of speaker order.
  6. Use speech tags whenever speaker order changes. In general, you are only able to omit speech tags when two characters speak in alternating lines.
What do you think? Does this framework help answer your speech tag questions?

Image: Simon Howden /