Wednesday, March 30, 2016

An Alternative to Speech Tags by Adam Blumer

Have you ever read a novel that drove you crazy with the "he said/she said" dialog tags? There's another option, and author Adam Blumer talks about it in today's post. -- Sandy 

Adam: Strong dialogue is so important for good fiction; it can reveal information, show a character’s personality, and push the plot along. The primary purpose of speech tags, of course, is to ID speakers, but are they even necessary? I believe the answer is no. In fact, I believe speech tags should be eliminated as often as possible. Let me explain why. But first, consider this sample:

Jack looked, and the shadow was there again, capering and undulating at the bottom of the rickety stairs like some sort of otherworldly wraith. Goose bumps peppered his arms. He willed his legs forward, but they wouldn’t budge. 

When Nancy grabbed his arm from behind, he nearly squealed like a scared little girl.

“Scared you, huh?” Nancy asked with a chuckle.

“Uh, yeah,” Jack said, trying to breathe. “You could say that.”

“Is somebody down there?” Nancy asked, peering over his shoulder down the beckoning stairs.

“That’s what I was trying to figure out,” Jack said.

OK, let’s break it down. 

Only two people populate this suspenseful scene: Jack and Nancy. That fact makes dialogue easier to write. The reader is smart enough to determine who is speaking without speech tags. But if the speaker’s ID is unclear, what’s a better way than speech tags? Some authors insert action beats, slices of action that reveal character, give the scene action, and heighten suspense.

Here’s how the scene could be written. I’ve also inserted some words in bold to explain my choices. Be sure to look for the action beats.

Jack looked, and the shadow was there again, capering and undulating at the bottom of the rickety stairs like some sort of otherworldly wraith. Goose bumps peppered his arms. He willed his legs forward, but they wouldn’t budge.

When Nancy grabbed his arm from behind, he nearly squealed like a scared little girl.

“Scared you, huh?” She chuckled. [There’s no need to tell the reader this is Nancy. Since there are only two characters, “she” tells the reader this is Nancy. The word “asked” is also redundant because the dialogue itself shows she is asking something.]

“Uh, yeah.” He tried to breathe. [There’s no reason to insert “said” here. By placing an action beat with “he,” the text achieves the same purpose as a speech tag, yet it’s more active.] “You could say that.”

“Is somebody down there?” She peered over his shoulder down the beckoning stairs. [No speech tag is needed. We know this is Nancy, and the action beat gives her something to do.]

“That’s what I was trying to figure out.” [No speech tag is needed.]

Do you see what I did? There’s simply no reason to tell the reader so-and-so said something when you can show this instead. Remember, in good fiction it’s always better to show than to tell. Action beats are super in fiction, and if you attach a character’s name to them (only when necessary), there’s no reason to use speech tags.


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Adam Blumer edits other people’s books to pay the bills. He writes his own to explore creepy lighthouses and crime scenes. He is the author of two suspense novels, Fatal Illusions (Lighthouse Publishing of the Carolinas) and its sequel, The Tenth Plague (Kirkdale Press). A print journalism major in college, he works full-time from home as book editor after serving in editorial roles for more than twenty years. He lives in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula with his wife, Kim, and his daughters, Laura and Julia. You can learn more about Adam by visiting his website: http://www.adamblumerbook.com. Here are other ways to reach him:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/AdamBlumerNovelist


After adopting their son, Marc and Gillian Thayer intend on enjoying a relaxing weekend away at a picturesque resort in northern Michigan. That is, until their friend turns up dead and the resort becomes a grisly murder scene.

A killer, seeking revenge, begins reenacting the ten plagues of Egypt on the resort and everyone in it, including a Bible translation team already drawing angry protests for proposing to merge the Bible with corresponding passages from the Qur'an. Water turns to blood. Gnats attack the innocent. As plague after plague appears, the Thayers must make sense of how their story intersects with those of the others at the resort—and of their own dark pasts.

In this "chilling tale that keeps readers turning pages and pondering its truths" (C. J. Darlington), the Thayers must unravel the truth. But will they uncover the killer's bitter agenda before the tenth plague—the death of the firstborn son?

7 comments:

  1. I'm with you, Adam. I rarely use tags, and then only if there are several people in a group. I mostly use action beats, but the occasional he said she said breaks that up a bit.

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    1. Thanks! It's amazing how many newbies are unaware of the power of action beats instead of tags.

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  2. i love using beats instead of tags!!!

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    1. Absolutely! Thanks for your comment.

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  3. This is one of the most powerful tools we have as writers. I only use tags if absolutely necessary. When we use beats, it draws the reader even more deeply into our imaginary world, increasing their emotional connection with the characters. Great example, Adam.

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    1. Thanks, Melinda, for joining the discussion. I totally agree.

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  4. This is very helpful to me right now. Thanks!

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