Wednesday, January 19, 2011

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

by Deren Hansen

Writing Wednesday

In ideal prose, the dialog is so distinct that the reader knows the identity of the speaker without any additional attribution.

In practice, the ideal is rarely achieved and dialog requires attribution.

A Minimal Speech Tag Framework

Cardinal Rule: The reader must never be confused about who is speaking.

Strategy: Employ a consistent pattern of attribution so that your readers eyes slide right past the tags.

Attribution Rules
  1. Use said and asked almost all the time. An alternate tag might occasionally be warranted, but you'd better have a very good reason.
  2. Use the form "Fred said", not "said Fred." "Said" comes last in the prepositional form ("said he" sounds archaic). There's no reason not to be consistent (aside from the long fashion of using the said-first form).
  3. Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate).
  4. Use associated beats to convey non-verbal communication and show the emotion state of the speaker. A beat is a sentence in the same paragraph as the dialog that describes what the speaker is doing or feeling.
  5. Omit speech tags when it's clear who is speaking. Use tags or beats to identify the speakers periodically so that the reader doesn't lose track of speaker order.
  6. Use speech tags whenever speaker order changes. In general, you are only able to omit speech tags when two characters speak in alternating lines.
What do you think? Does this framework help answer your speech tag questions?


Deren blogs daily at The Laws of Making.
Image: Simon Howden / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

2 comments:

Paul West said...

You explained it well, with the exception of #3

"Only apply adverbs to "said" that qualify the physical act of speaking. Using adverbs to convey something about the emotional state of the speaker is lazy writing. You're telling the reader something about the way the character spoke if you say "said loudly" (and more direct verbs like shouted or cried aren't appropriate)."

Maybe I'm reading this wrong but this point is a little confusing to me. Do we or don't we used adverbs? Also, you say "direct verbs are not appropriate.

Can you clarify this.

Deren Hansen said...

I suspect I erred on the side of being too concise with #3. Let me try a different approach:

The job of an adverb is to modify a verb. Sometimes we need to qualify an action and we don't have a direct verb that does the job. So adverbs have their place so long as we use them sparingly (like that one).

We get in trouble, as writers, when we confuse human actions and intentions. For example, consider a medic working on a battlefield. Saying that the medic cut quickly or carefully qualifies the action and gives us, as readers, evidence to infer the medic's intent. On the other hand, saying he cut viciously qualifies the intent behind the action and not the action itself.

So with a speech tag, I resist using adverbs because it's too easy to fall into the trap of qualifying intention (e.g., "he said disdainfully"): it's lazy writing because character's intention should be conveyed either through dialog or description.

The exception I allow is for adverbs that qualify the act of speaking. If a character has been speaking at a normal volume so that everyone in the conference room can hear and then turns to a companion and says something to that one person but doesn't whisper, you could use, "he said quietly."

You might point out that a beat like, "He turned to Fred and lowered his voice," would be a better way to do it than, "he said quietly." I would concede the point on stylistic grounds.

Similarly, you should always use a direct verb (e.g., shouted or called) instead of a qualified verb (e.g., said loudly) if the direct verb can do the job. But occasionally no direct verb has the right sense so you need to qualify the closest verb. For example, if you wanted to describe a character nominally speaking to one group who raises his voice to be sure that someone else in the room will hear, he's neither shouting nor calling, so "said loudly" might be your best choice. This is what I was trying to convey with my poorly-worded aside about direct verbs in #3.