What should a writer do with speech tags?

You’ll have to read one of my Ambrose Lincoln trillers to find out what I do with speech tags. Usually, I do what feels right at the time.

I sometimes wonder: Other than grammar and punctuation, why should writing have any rules at all?

Does this art of writing have too many rules?

We discuss them at writer’s conferences.

Each speaker has his or her own set of them.

We discuss rules at critique groups.

Writers all have their own boxed set of the ones they preach as gospel.

You can discard the Ten Commandments.

But, Lord, break one of their rules, and it’s heresy.

You could be burned at the stake.

I sometimes wonder: Why should writing have any rules at all?

I’m not talking about punctuation.

Or grammar.

I’m talking about the way we tell our stories.

And you know the problem with it all?

There are rules.

And there are contradictions.

What’s right?

What’s wrong?

Does anyone know?

Does anyone really care?

It seems that most in our critique group want to ban speech tags with the same vehemence we once wanted to ban the bomb.

“Where did you find the body?” he asked.

“On the beach,” she said.

“When?” he asked.

“When I looked at my watch, it was midnight,” she said.

“What were you doing on the beach at midnight?” he asked.

Those who like speech tags believe that “he said” and “she said” are invisible to the reader, and I believe they are. Readers know who’s talking, and they race right past the tags as though they don’t exist

Some, however, are violently opposed to speech tags and have a tendency to be violent if you dare have the gall to use them.

A speech tag is like a stake in the heart of a good piece of dialogue, they say. Getting rid of speech tags is the new style of writing. Use them, and readers know immediately you are an old codger.

They stare at me.

I use speech tags.

I am an old codger.

Instead, they say, give the speaker movement instead of speech tags.

“Where did you find the body?” He shoved his hat on the back of his head.

“On the beach.” The lady turned away and started to cry.

“When?” He shivered slightly in the cold wind blowing across the bay.

She looked at her watch. “Midnight.”

“What were you doing on the beach at midnight?” He wiped the rain off his face.

I don’t have a problem with eliminating speech tags.

It’s like watching television.

I see all of the movements.

But too many of these movements stop the snap, crackle, and pop of good dialogue. It’s hard to keep action or suspense flowing if the writer keeps tapping the brakes.

Do rules create better writing?

Do rules create tighter writing?

Do rules create stronger writing?

Maybe.

I hope so.

Or do rules simply give speakers something to talk about at writer’s workshops?

Here are my thoughts on rules.

They have been around forever.

They keep changing.

Rules are made to be broken.

Use them.

Break them.

Make up your own.

Or forget them.

The reader doesn’t give a damn.

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  • Rules, rules, and more rules! Who makes these rules, anyway?

    Great piece, Caleb. I’m sort of in the middle on this. I use tags, because, as a reader, I get irritated when I have to backtrack and count the dialogue lines to figure out who said what when. But I also don’t need a tag with each line, specifically if it’s only two people talking. So I use the tags every few lines to keep readers oriented, and/or I occasionally pop in the movement to give visual cues.

    As you point out, none of us are right or wrong. It’s just a matter of style choices.

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