I’m ever grateful for the colleague years ago who pointed me to an RWA chapter. Not that I didn't know
Mostly because fiction needs dialogue.
During one RWA chapter session early on, the speaker handed out an entire 8-11 sheet filled with speech tags, those little words that help the reader along during characters’ conversations. The alphabetical list included a million verbs like asked, answered. Anticipated. Articulated...affirmed, begged, bantered.
Chastised, chorused...demanded, dared. Remarked, recited, rebuked...said, stammered, spoke.
You get the picture.
My "first" best editor alerted me that the best tags to use are the simple ones: said, asked.
Well, I have fought for a “drawled” or two since my heroes are usually cowboys. But I do want to stave off too many he said/she saids while keeping clarity. Of course I know full well we need tags to identify the speaker, to keep the reader from getting confused, and to break up long sections. But...
...Most people don’t stand on a stage reciting Shakespearean monologues. They are doing something while they talk to somebody else. They’re driving around town. Emptying the dishwasher, chopping herbs. Even sitting at a table, they’re drinking tea or picking at a finger nail, maybe shuffling their feet. So why not use these physical actions as clues to teach more about our characters and balance out all the said’s and asked’s?
One thing, when a character’s spoken query is clearly punctuated with a question mark, I may not need to use another “asked”. What if the character scratches her head, or wrinkles her forehead instead?
And maybe we can short-cut sometimes. It might work using “He grimaced.” Instead of ...” he said with a grimace.
I personally want to avoid so-called “speech tags” that clearly are actions in themselves with nothing to do with talking. Like grimaced. Belched, laughed, wept. Nodded, sighed. Let’s hear a burp, wipe away tears.
Nope. “I’m so full I could burst,” he belched.
Better: “I’m so full I could burst.” He belched...
She nodded can stand alone, without being punctuated as a speech tag.
“I understand,” she nodded. Nope.
“I understand.” She nodded.
Yup. Run with those possibilities in your own style.
And I've got a pet peeve with “he lied.” Sorry, but that’s the lazy way of informing or reminding a reader of a character’s dishonesty. Let the reader see his face reddening, how he can’t look anyone in the eye.
Oh, and I grind my teeth at animal sounds like She chirped. He barked; she hissed. He roared, she growled. He snarled, she howled.
(Okay, I admit a good hiss can work but puh-leeze, have the S sound in the dialogue!) “I hate you,” she hissed does not work. “You’re a scandalous snob,” she hissed...Yeah.
Of course I use said and asked. And I know she whispered has as much potential as she said softly. But balancing a speech tag with action can grant us writers some variety and invite our readers right into the moment.
What are some versions you can think of for:
“I didn't mean it. It wasn't my fault.....” he said, looking guilty.
A native Californian, Tanya Hanson lives with her firefighter husband on the central coast where they enjoy traveling, good health, and two little grandsons. An award-winning author of both inspirational and secular western romance, she recently released Seeing Daylight, the seventh book in her Hearts Crossing Ranch series featuring the eight siblings of a Colorado ranching family.
A beautiful attorney widowed by a foolhardy man...a successful builder vanquishing guilt over his wife's death. Can they rebuild faith and find love enough to give each other and their kids a happy home together?