Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Craft Choice: Speaker Tag

"I shan't go overboard with speaker tags," she said, "I find them to be horribly dull!"
"Then don't!"  He retorted.
"Oh, I certainly won't!  And when I do use speaker tags, I'll keep it nice and simple and only use 'said' for the communicative verb."
Having just finished rereading Golding's Lord of the Flies, I am left to ponder the usage of speaker tags in fiction.  In this book, lines of dialogue get their own paragraph and are often left without a tag of any kind.  It is the preceding or following paragraph that give us a hint as to who spoke.  Many people, authors and the like, have expressed a desire to minimize speaker tags in writing as a way to keep the story moving along or to limit the temptation to add unnecessary exposition to 's/he said.'  Some people feel quite the opposite and demand a tag on almost every line of dialogue because losing track of who's speaking is more detrimental to your story than a moment of extraneous detail.  Personally I hate not knowing who is talking though sometimes keeping it a bit obscure, such as in Golding's novel, can add to the setting of chaos.  But don't let that be your only element of chaos either.

Then there is the subject of what to use in your speaker tag.  Most Fiction authors agree that 'said' is more than enough, yet, Venice Berry (a very successful author herself) informed my workshop class in Boston that 'said' is fine but can get a little boring after a while.  She encouraged us to reach for other ways to express the verb.  There was a time when I steered clear of 'said' figuring that it was what 'learning writers' used and not the mark of a matured author.  I've been corrected.

What do I do when it comes to speaker tags?  I use them generously and I often fall into the trap of adding exposition right along with it.  And I primarily use 'said' but I am not afraid to change it up when I feel it better expresses how or why the character spoke in the first place.  This is a topic of interest to me and may end up working its way into a critical analysis at some point during this semester.  Just as a casual question: how do you - readers and fellow contributors - typically handle speaker tags?  I'm not asking what you think is best or better or more professional or more likely to get you published.  I'm just curious what works for you at this point in time.  Everyone has a different style and sometimes it helps to know you're not completely alone in your craft choices.

Amanda LaFantasie (Skoora) © 2013


  1. Speaker Tags are an interesting animal. And difficult to deal with particularly in a classroom setting. In my courses, we are horribly reprimanded if we use anything but said. Exposition is fine afterwards, but words that particularly upset the professors here are adjectives such as "growled, huffed, or even scoffed" they would rather have a longer sentence "Lorelai said, rolling her eyes," in order to show the expression or response, rather than "Lorelai scoffed at the ridiculousness of it all." Which is considered "telling" versus "showing." It can all become very very strange. Our professors also always tell us, "When you're successful, then you can break away from craft rules (or expectations) until then, you're better off playing safe." Aka, "Play it safe or you wont pass the class." It's one of those "rules that's not a rule" that has stuck with me since my first creative writing course.

    For myself, I have actually found the aforementioned to work well, not necessarily because it's a rule, but because it allows for easier sentence flow. It sounds nicer to say 'Damion said, his voice dropping several octaves as he turned away..." than it is to say, 'Damion scoffed, his voice dropping several octaves as he turned away..." certainly the meaning gets across either way, but one is just easier to read, and also allows for easier visualization. Does that even make sense. Of course that is just me. I've also learned to play with dialog and use that to show what I mean and just throw out speaker tags entirely. That is something I particularly enjoy, and something I've found out my teachers and classmates enjoy too. Being able to show through the dialog can be even more effective than trying to show through speaker tags.

    Obviously people will always come up with exceptions, and writing styles are always changing and we are developing new rules or expectations towards good writing every day. A hundred years ago, Hugo was the master of writing, now if you write like Hugo, very few if any grad schools will want you because the language is hard and outdated. In a hundred years, our idea of "literary perfection" will likely be the same and there will be a new technique. Honestly that probably didn’t answer your question at all, but… That’s what I’ve got.

    1. They are very interesting. I couldn't get over the unique lack of them in Lord of the Flies. I think the handling of dialogue in general is a very fascinating craft element to look at. I'm also reading Franz Kafka at the moment so the gross difference between Golding and Kafka are what got me going on speaker tags in the first place. For me, as long as the story is unencumbered by stilted language and verbs, then do what feels best. It also depends very much on what type of novel or prose one writes, but in general I've found for myself that less is almost always more.