Jerusha Cowless, Agony Aunt: "I'm falling before the first hurdle"
Have you heard the one about "was"?

Talking speech tags

One of the old chestnuts that gets re-roasted every so often, by aspiring writers and those who try to help them, is the one about speech tags: this post is typical. On one side are the writers whose English teachers have told them to vary things by using "he giggled", "she grimaced", "they prevaricated" and so on. I assume it's partly by way of a bit of vocabulary practice, and partly in the cause of elegant variation, to avoid repeating "said". And it's true that once your repeat-alert is set to pick up any particular word, including "said", they'll shout at you. And on the other side are the writers for whom anything except "said" is clangingly over-stated and amateurish. Me? I'll be honest and say that I almost never see "said" in a novel and think it should be something else, and I very, very frequently see a something else and think it should be "said". The problem is, of course, that the argument gets over-simplified. It's obvious enough that "said" is "said", but there are several different kind of Other Speech Tag, and there's no sensible discussion to be had about when and whether to use them till you make those distinctions.

Sound - evoking (showing) the oral/aural quality of the speech. This kind of tag seems to me essential, on occasions, to evoking the actual experience of the moment: "I hate you," she whispered is very different from "I hate you," she shouted. It's not just about decibels, either: "Land ho!" she gasped would suit a different point in the voyage from "Land ho!" she sang out. And such tags may be more useful still; for example, it’s a very economical way of bringing out the subtext of a scene - character in action, if you like - to write that "Dinner is served" is muttered rather than announced.

Informing (telling) us about the content of the speech. In "I wouldn't kiss him if he was Prince Charming," she joked, the speech tag is explaining something we've already got by being shown it. Same goes for "If you do that I'll kill you," he threatened and "Latin verbs have four principle parts, as any decently educated man learns at his Prep school," he pontificated. Same goes for "Well done," she commended, "I don't think so," I argued and so on. They’re almost always redundant if you've done your job properly with the content of the speech and the other actions. And like all redundancies they weaken what they seem to be strengthening. Some of this (including the separate question of said+adverb) comes under the larger umbrella of Showing and Telling. You almost never need to show us and tell us.

Some speech tags are a mixture of inform and evoke: they're basically telling us about the content, but that has an aural/oral quality, because of course tones of voice stem from character-in-action: he complained, they sneered, I puffed. If you find yourself wanting to use one of these, I'd suggest double-checking that it's not informing us about what you're also evoking, and if you really can't show us in the speech and action, then tell us with the tag. On the other hand, if there's friction between the speech and the tag, it can work rather well: "I love you so much," she sneered.

Similarly, the search for evocative speech tags can lure you into over-writing. I never say 'never' about anything in writing but do be sure that you're sparing with them: "Don't do that," she bossed. [at least "bossed" does partly evoke the aural quality, although it's Tell-y] "I shall if I want," I resisted. [is purely Telling us about the content] "Not if you want me to promote you," she overbore. [is just plain awful - a fancy verb which doesn't even work because the verb "overbore" must have a direct object]

Informing us about the circumstances of the speech. It may be necessary to say "Some bastard must have scraped the car in the multi-storey" he lied, if the structure of the book means you haven't been able to show us that he scraped it driving out of his lover's garage.  But if we do know that, "lied" is redundant and... but you know that bit... Though do make sure that "lied" fits with your handling of psychic distance and point of view: do we have access to the knowledge that it's a lie? And of course speech tags, like anything else, may be filtered through a character-narrator's point of view. "Come on then," she said bossily may be just the job, if the point is that the narrator feels bossed - another character might feel nagged, a third encouraged.

But speech tags are verbs, as far as I'm concerned, and that verb should be about the act of speaking. Smiling is not an act of speaking, and nor is giggling or scowling, or bossing or over-bearing: they're separate actions. So as far as I and many teachers/editors are concerned, "Don't do that," I smiled should be "Don't do that, I murmured, smiling. Or  I smiled. "Don't do that." but not, I smiled, "Don't do that."

Some of it is conditioned by your taste and your voice. Personally I'm much more likely to write He scuffed his toes into the sand. "Do we have to go?" with or without a he said, on the end, than I'm likely to write "Do we have to go?" he whined. But I wouldn't insist on that in your writing.

And finally, a bit of brutal fact. If I pick up a manuscript, or a book, and see a lot of Tell-y or otherwise elaborate speech tags, my experience has taught me that the writing is almost always either a) beginnery, or b) very weak or c) very commercial, because those are the three classes of writing which tend to be overstated or clunky. That doesn't matter if you're my student: we'll talk about it. But I'm not the only one to feel like this about elaborate speech tags. So be aware that, like it or not, if your non-"said" speech tags aren't really, really earning their keep, your writing is going to be starting on the back foot with many of the people who have power over your writing.

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