Wednesday, August 16, 2023

Speech Tags

  by Fran Hodgkins



Dialog is one of the most important parts of fiction. It makes your characters come to life, it provides information to the reader without resorting to the dreaded info-dump, and it keeps the story moving forward. If you write fiction, you’re going to need dialog.


In this post, I’m going to focus on an important aspect of dialog: speech tags. In a later post, we’ll delve into the words that the characters actually speak, and even touch on proper punctuation (I hear you groaning, but bear with me).


You may get advice to never use the word “said.” You may get advice to always use the word “said.” My suggestion is to use “said” and its synonyms to help the reader “hear” how the characters are speaking. 




I became interested in this recently when listening to an audiobook. The author is someone I recently discovered and whose work I enjoy. Yet one thing that became troubling, almost annoying, was the use of the word “said.” Perhaps it came down to the narrator, but every time that word was used, it sounded like someone had dropped a hammer. Clunk! Clunk! Clunk!


And when it was used for several lines in a row, it made me grind my teeth.

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel said. (clunk!)

  •             “What, Gretel?” Hansel said. (clunk!)

  •             “Look over there!” Gretel said. (clunk!)

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!” Hansel said. (clunk!)


This clunk problem has several solutions.


First, if there are only two characters talking, you don’t need speech tags, or at least as many.

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel said.

  •             “What, Gretel?”

  •             “Look over there!”

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!”

The words and punctuation carry the emotions, and Gretel uses direct address in her first line – so we know who she’s talking to. No need to tag Hansel.


Second, you can use synonyms. Here caution is called for, because while “said” is innocuous, its synonyms carry the weight of connotation. Because of this, and the wonderful rainbow shades of meaning that are possible in English, I doubt that any true one-to-one matching synonyms exist. But I digress!


One of these words that must be used cautiously is “cried,” which implies a character is shouting or screaming, but there’s an edge of pain or fear to their vocalization.

            “Get away from me!” he cried.

            “Help me, Rhonda!” she cried.


Some writers will use “cried” to stand for “shouted,” “yelled,” or even “said loudly.” Using it as a stand-in for a word that is meant to express volume alone – and not any kind of emotion – blunts the edge of “cried.” Save it for the right time.


Depending on the thesaurus or website you’re using, you can find dozens or even hundreds of words to use in place of said. When you want to have “said” but need it to do a bit more lifting, choose a volume word (“shouted,” whispered,”), a quality/emotion word (“cried,” “shrieked,” and even “exclaimed.”) But don’t overdo it:

  •             “Hansel!” Gretel exclaimed. (clunk!)

  •             “What, Gretel?” Hansel replied. (clunk!)

  •             “Look over there!” Gretel yelled.

  •             “A house made of candy! No way!” Hansel shrieked.


Third, make sure the “direction” of the word is appropriate. What do I mean? Look at the first line from Hansel in above: instead of “said,” it uses “replied.” A reply is made in response to another character. We can’t have Gretel reply in her first line because she’s not responding to anything. Same goes for the less-often-used “responded.” Make sure your character is responding or replying when you use these words.


Some speech tags are directly related to the statement your character is making. Asking a question? You can use “said,” or “asked” without hesitation. You can use “queried,” “questioned,” “posed,” or “inquired,” as well. More desperate for an answer? Try “begged,” or “pleaded.” Feeling a little more aggressive? Try “quizzed” or “demanded” and see what happens – how the tone of your scene changes.

            See the results below.

  • "How long have you been here?” asked Sue. (This gives the feel of a casual question, almost like small talk, but requesting information.)

  • “How long have you been here?” inquired Sue. (This gives a more focused feeling – Sue’s really interested in your answer, and not just chatting.)

  • “How long have you been here?” demanded Sue. (Whoa! Who upset Sue? This definitely gives off a vibe of an interrogation.)


Here’s one thing to note: You can deal with the subtleties of speech tags in revision. Don’t stop working on your first draft to wrestle with whether your character is begging, inquiring, explaining, shouting, or demanding. Write said and keep moving. The important thing to the finish your first draft. Then you can pick and choose the right speech tags. 


Questions? Comments? Let me know!




  1. Oh, Fran, this is a great tutorial on dialog and the ins & outs of using tags! Thank you.

  2. Clunk! Clunk! Love this. Now when I listen to audios I'll hear clunks in some places. When I write I'd better heed your words! (so I won't have too many clunks) Thank you for being so loud. Welcome back, GROG.

  3. Thank you, Fran, for this tutorial on the use of speech tags!