. . . WHEN TO USE THEM

Speech tags, like most things, are useful when used appropriately, and “he said/she said” are two of the more "invisible-to-the-reader" speech tags–when they're used in moderation. "He asked/she asked" are two others.

I can think of five cases in which I use speech tags. The are:

  • To start of a dialogue rotation between two people (anchors the reader so they know who's talking).
  • To keep the people sorted in a three person (or greater) dialogue sequence. For example:
    "Gol durn it!" said Larry, tossing his screwdriver down on the floor.
    "Hand me the monkey wrench, will ya Ralph?"
    "But wouldn't a socket wrench be better?" asked the new guy.
    "Leave him alone, kid. Just watch. You might learn something. Larry likes to use a monkey wrench for these kinds of job," said Ralph as he winked at me.
    This was going to be funny.
  • To vary the pacing or to build in a hesitation (see above example)
  • To describe how the speaker is speaking, if there's no way in the dialogue itself to show it (e.g., she whispered, he said lowering his voice)
  • To add some sort of simultaneous action (e.g., "You playin' or droppin'? he asked as he riffled the cards.)

Otherwise, I tend to avoid speech tags.

As much as possible I try to ensure that each speaker has a unique voice consisting of pet phrases, vocabulary, and slang he or she tends to use often . . . along with portraying attitudes appropriate to the character in the content of his or her speech. Done right this helps speaker recognition.

But sometimes I replace speech tags with "gestures" (anything a character does while talking). For example,.

"What do you think you're doing!?" Sam's jaw tightened as he glared at me..

And sometimes I replace them by using direct address; but I'm leery about relying too much on the use of proper names to anchor the reader in the dialogue flow. Proper names are okay used in moderation, but they lend an artificiality to dialogue when used too often. People, in the middle of day-to-day conversation, don't call each other by their first names very much. People use proper names only occasionally, for example, when they're angry with the other person, when they want to get a specific person's attention from amidst a group of people, when they're trying to make a point, when they're becoming intimate, and so forth.

One caveat when using speech tags: beware of "said-bookisms." Said-bookisms are jarring substitutes for the invisible he said/she said speech tags. Examples are “he interjected” (he what?), “she vocalized” (I would guess so), “he ejaculated” (if this doesn’t jolt the reader in some fashion, I’d be very surprised), “she inquired” (it’s probably obvious she’s asking”), “she retorted” (probably obvious), etc. Said-bookisms usually stick out as artificial, redundant, and sometimes ever a bit absurd. They often smack of the author telling the reader what should be obvious from the dialogue itself. Don't use “said-bookisms” if you want to keep your reader thoroughly immersed in your story.