Speech Tag Specifics

Have you decided whether to give the verb first or the name first in speech tags? And what about their position? Should they always go after a line of dialogue, or is there something to gain by placing them elsewhere? Here, I discuss these subjects, getting some input from thriller-writing royalty in the shape of the great Tess Gerritsen

Be Your Own Copy Editor #9

When you write speech tags in your novel, do you put a character’s name first, then give the verb, or do you give the verb first, then a name? Here’s an example of the name-first style to make it clear what I’m talking about:

‘What we’re gonna do is break into Paris Hilton’s mansion and kidnap Tinkerbell, her chihuahua,’ Jez said.

Here, the verb comes first:

‘No, man,’ said Reginald. ‘Bad plan. We should wait till the maid be walking that bling-encrusted rat out on the street, then go scoop it up.’

Tinkerbell and Paris Hilton 2Maybe you haven’t actually considered the order in which you give the name and verb in your speech tags. I say that because a fair number of authors whose work I copy-edit haven’t thought the issue through and mix the two styles without realising they’re doing it. Sometimes they write ‘Character X said’, and sometimes ‘said Character X’. Yet the issue deserves attention, because each of the two approaches produces a different effect.

In their classic book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers: How to Edit Yourself into Print, Renni Browne and Dave King describe the verb-first style as having ‘a slightly old-fashioned, first-grade-reader flavour . . . After all, “said he” fell out of favour sometime during the Taft administration.’ They do have something of a point. (Note to fellow Brits: Taft was president of the United States from 1909 to 1913.) Writers of contemporary genre fiction usually opt to give the name first – ‘Jez said’ and so on – and advocates of this style include the late, great Elmore Leonard, Michael Connelly and Lee Child. This way of ordering speech tags has a tougher edge to it than the verb-first option, and it’s particularly suited to streetwise crime fiction. I would say it’s pretty much the convention in genre fiction in general, in fact. However, Browne and King are stretching their point when they talk about ‘said he’ and President Taft, since no writer I’ve ever come across who puts the verb first when using a name also puts the verb first when using a pronoun. Instead, when a pronoun is used it always goes first, as in the following passage.

Jez looked out the window of the diner and scanned fifty yards of sidewalk Paris Hilton’s chihuahua passed along each day. ‘There’s one big problem with your plan,’ he said. ‘And that big problem weighs two hundred forty pounds and got a concealed-carry permit.’

Which brings me to another way of ordering speech tags – one I’m calling the Tess Gerritsen approach. What the thriller writer Tess Gerritsen does is mix the noun-first and verb-first styles in a consistent and logical way. If she’s using a character’s name, 99 per cent of the time she gives the verb first, but if she’s using a pronoun, she puts the pronoun first. Let’s look at that approach in action.

Reginald stopped eating his chicken burger for a moment and frowned. ‘The chihuahua got a bodyguard?’ he said.

‘A Muay Thai instructor they call Stone Foot,’ said Jez, nodding.

I don’t detect a first-grade-reader flavour there.

When I noticed Tess Gerritsen does something different from most authors with her speech tags, I sent her an email asking her about her approach. Now, Tess Gerritsen writes at more or less the pace of a novel a year, she has sold over 25 million books, and her crime-fiction series has been adapted into a highly popular TV series called Rizzoli & Isles, which is going to run for a fifth season in 2014. What I’m building up to saying here is that though I sent Tess Gerritsen an email, I didn’t expect her to actually reply. Yet she very kindly did, saying she wasn’t aware she has a system for speech tags. She also talked about her approach to them in general.

‘My general philosophy is to use as few of them as possible, only for clarity, and make the dialogue itself do most of the work,’ she said. ‘But sometimes you just need to identify who is talking, and my favourite word is, simply, said at the end of the sentence. It’s unobtrusive and gets the job done. However, that gets really repetitive after a while  (“he said”,  “she said”,  “he said”,  “she said”). So, just to inject a change in rhythm, I’ll sometimes move the tag to the beginning of the sentence.’

Avoiding repetition and getting the rhythm right are clearly important considerations for Tess Gerritsen (I’ll talk about how she therefore varies the position of the tag in a moment). Since she restricts herself to using said as her speech-tag verb most of the time, by placing said before characters’ names but after pronouns, she has found a way to avoid hitting the reader with said after names and pronouns again and again. Instead of, say, writing a sequence like ‘Jez said,’ ‘Reginald said,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’, she would write ‘said Jez, ‘said Reginald,’ ‘he said’ and ‘she said’.

If you’re a writer who hasn’t thought through how to order verbs and nouns in speech tags at all, it’s a good idea to give the subject some consideration when you self-edit your manuscript and adopt a well-thought-out and consistent approach that suits your style and the kind of novel you’re writing. You might want to check on what approach authors who influence you take, too. Whatever style you decide to use, remember to align your thought tags – the tags you use with inner monologue, if you use them – so they follow the same pattern as the speech-tag one. For example, if you opt to give the name or pronoun first in all cases, you should write thought tags like the one in the passage that follows:

Jez took out his smartphone and looked at photos of Tinkerbell’s crib on Paris Hilton’s Twitter feed. That mutt got a better home than I got, he thought.

Let’s now look at the topic of the positioning of speech tags, which Tess Gerritsen talks about, saying she sometimes likes to put the tag before a line of dialogue to change the rhythm. Here are the three options, starting with tag first:

Reginald said, ‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’

‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money,’ Reginald said, ‘we gonna mail her a paw?’

‘And if Paris Hilton don’t pay no ransom-demand money, we gonna mail her a paw?’ Reginald said.

An advantage of the first style is it tells the reader who’s speaking straightaway. A disadvantage is that, since the speech tag comes before the line of dialogue, the tag isn’t as discreet as it could be, and it takes some of the limelight away from what the character says. The second style is interesting in that the speech tag acts as a brief interruption, creating a beat and thereby spotlighting what comes after it. The line of dialogue I’ve used in my examples has a punchy second clause, and by positioning the speech tag just before that clause, creating a pause, it’s given just a little bit more of a kick than it would otherwise have.

The advantage of the third style is that the line of dialogue is given in a fluid flourish and takes centre stage. The disadvantage is that the speech tag is there to tell the reader who’s speaking, and placing the tag after the line of dialogue delays the delivery of that important information. On the other hand, the reader usually has a good idea who’s speaking, often because what’s being said and the way it’s being said make that obvious, or because characters are conversing in a clear pattern – for example, Jez says something, then Reginald says something, and then Jez speaks, and so on. But that’s not always the case, and sometimes, when using the third style, there’s a risk the reader won’t be absolutely sure who’s speaking till after he or she has read the actual dialogue, which is not good. Also, if you use a particular verb because you want to indicate how a line is said (shouted, whispered, etc.), the third style isn’t particularly satisfactory, because the reader will read the line and only afterwards discover that he or she was supposed to imagine it shouted or whispered or whatever.

By far the most common style, of course, is the third, and I don’t think I’ve ever read a novel in which either of the first two styles is used exclusively. Some writers opt to use the third style most of the time and mix in a few examples of either the first (Tess Gerritsen, for example) or the second, or both (Elmore Leonard liked to do this) to change the rhythm. If you’re a writer who always uses style number three, you might want to consider using the other two styles as well for the same reason.

Self-Editing Checklist

  1. Look through your manuscript to see if you’ve adopted a consistent and logical approach to the order in which you use verbs and nouns in speech tags and thought tags. If you find you haven’t, think the matter through and decide on a style. You might want to read novels by your favourite authors for inspiration. The usual style in genre fiction is to give the name or pronoun first in all cases. The Tess Gerritsen approach is well worth considering, too.
  2. If you always place your speech tags after lines of dialogue, think about using the other two positions illustrated in the examples above to vary the rhythm.

So, this blog has been a long time coming – was my last one really six months ago? Oh dear. I promise to try to up my blog rate from a pitiful twice a year to once a month.

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About Marcus Trower

I'm a book editor, writer and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu addict.

Posted on October 6, 2013, in Be Your Own Copy Editor and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. This is a really helpful and informative blog post, Marcus … worth waiting six months for!

  2. Good to see you’re blogging again Marcus, and as always, an excellent post.

  3. hmm, kidnapping Paris Hilton’s dog that could be quite a story in itself – mind if I steal it?

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