Beware: Too many or too few speech tags

A speech tag lets readers know who is speaking. She said, he snapped, Aunt May whispered. But using a tag on every line gets to be cumbersome to read.

Example #1

“I still think it is suspicious,” Sally insisted.

“You are being paranoid,” Mike said.

“Don’t you think it is odd she just happened to show up at the same restaurant in the exact same dress,” she asked.

“You look better in it,” he said.

“Thanks,” she said.

Mike took her hands and looking into her eyes said, “Look don’t worry about her.”

Sally sighed. “Ok, OK,” she said. “I can do that.”

“Good,” Mike said with a smile. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

As you can see from this example, there are way too many speech tags. Often you can go without the speech tags at all and still let the reader know who is speaking. Here is the same example without speech tags but letting the characters actions announce who is speaking.

Example #2

Sally shot him a look as she dropped her purse on the bed. “I still think it is suspicious.”

“You are being paranoid,” Mike said.

“Don’t you think it is odd she just happened to show up at the same restaurant in the exact same dress?”

He came up behind her, wrapping his arms around her and leaning his cheek on her shoulder. “You look better in it.”

She smiled. “Thanks.”

“Look don’t worry about her.” His breath tickled her ear.

Sally laughed. “Ok, OK. I can do that.”

“Good.” Mike kissed her neck. “Now let’s talk about something else.”

The second example reads better without all the he said, she said business. It also adds to the scene to have character actions instead of just dialogue. And as you can see, one line has no one attributed to it but in a conversation between just two characters, you can drop the speech tags or any indication of who is speaking – or at least for a while. Any more than about 4 or 5 lines without tags and you have the possibility that the reader won’t remember who is speaking.

Example #3

“Let’s get out of here,” John said pulling her hand.

“No, we should stay.” Misty looked around. Nothing seemed out of place.

“I have a bad feeling about this.”

“You worry too much.”

“And you don’t worry enough.”

“Just give me a minute. This won’t take long.”

“Ok, just one but then we go.”

If this conversation goes on without tags, the reader can forget if it is John or Misty speaking. I know it has happened to me when reading. Sometimes it is clear by what the character says but other times it isn’t.

There is no hard or fast rule on when to use a speech tag and when to not. And each writer may have their own preferences. However, it certainly can improve your story to eliminate an overabundance of he said, she said.

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