Speech tags came up when my husband and I were listening to an audio book yesterday. “He uses ‘he said’ and ‘she said’ far too much,” was the comment from hubby when we took a break from listening. It is something that many writers do, while others make it worse by using a whole variety of speech tags in place of ‘he said’, such as ‘he replied’, ‘he answered’, ‘he shouted’ etc.
The reason that solving the ‘he said’ dilemma with a wide variety of tags is wrong is because when you are reading you are tuned to read past ‘he said’ and not interrupt the flow of what you are reading because of it, whereas ‘he replied’ would cause a greater pause in the reader and makes the writing more cumbersome.
It is possible to avoid speech tags altogether or at the very least keep their usage to a minimum. If it is obvious who is talking, either because you only have two characters and you have just switched from the other one, or because you have used the actions of the character to define who is in control of the story, then the speech tag is superfluous and should be removed.
These couple of paragraphs have been plucked from The Appearance of Truth
“No, thanks, I’m fine with this.” She glanced down at the still full glass of wine. “I probably shouldn’t be drinking. I didn’t have much breakfast.”
“Here, have a look at this.” Pete passed the Sunday lunch menu to her when he returned with his pint.
In both instances you know exactly who is talking but there is no speech tag other than the action of the characters. It is also a useful way to weave in your description without ending up giving solid blocks of narrative.
Here is another section from the following page – here the conversation goes back and forth between the two, but only once have I resorted to a speech tag of ‘she said’ or anything similar.
“You nearly didn’t,” she looked up from the menu. “I don’t go in for meeting strange men. Are you eating?”
“I prefer not to think of myself as strange. I’ll have the roast beef if you’re having something.”
“I didn’t mean . . .” she looked back at the menu again, feeling the colour rise in her face. “I’ll have the lasagne,” she said without looking up.
She opened her bag and took out her purse. Pete put his hand onto hers. “Please, let me. I know today will be tough. Let this be my treat.”
For a moment she stared at him. Her instinct was to argue for equality, but there was something in the gentle firmness of Pete’s words that allowed her to accept. “Thank you, that’s very kind.”
I am not saying they should be completely redundant, far from it, but they do not need to be intrusive and certainly do not need to appear at the end of every phrase of speech.