Speech Tags – how far do you go?


He said, she said and all that.

When I was in primary school, we were told to be imaginative with our speech tags: ‘he said’/’she said’ is boring – how about ‘I chortled’, ‘she expostulated’, ‘we beseeched’? On my Creative Writing M.A I was told only to use ‘said’. After a while, people don’t notice it, it becomes invisible – they just concentrate on the dialogue. But you can omit that too, as long as it’s clear who is speaking. Sometimes actions work well:

            John smashed his fist against the table. ‘How many times do I have to tell you? I’m not hungry!’

            Susan moved the salt cellar a fraction. ‘Okay. But don’t come running to me when your stomach’s rumbling.’

            Some writers go even further. Here is an extract from Cormac McCarthy’s novel ‘The Road.’:

The boy turned in the blankets. Then he opened his eyes. Hi Papa he said.

            I’m right here.

            I know.

McCarthy even omits the speech marks, but it is perfectly obvious who is speaking. The boy addresses his ‘Papa’ so we deduce the next speaker is his father; the fact that the father’s utterance is on a new line confirms he is the next speaker. And so on. By omitting speech marks, McCarthy is removing another barrier between us and his characters – we move closer, and hence we are more engaged with the father and son and their story.

Roddy Doyle does something similar but with hyphens. Here is an extract from his novel ‘Paddy Clarke, Ha Ha Ha’:

He got the remains of a packet of Toffo out of his pocket and showed it to us.

-There, he said.

-Give us one.

-There’s only four left; said Liam. He was putting the packet back in his pocket.

-Ah, said Kevin.

The two speech tags that are still present are enough to tell us who is speaking. The rest we can infer from the context and the positioning of the lines.  

Eimear McBride goes even further in her novel, ‘A Girl is a Half-formed Thing’:

            Walking up corridors up the stairs. Are you alright? Will you sit, he says. No. I want she says. I want to see my son.

Here there are no new lines to alert us to new speakers but again it is clear from the context and the speech tags who is speaking. And the readers are so close to the speaker that we are inside her head.

So, basically it is up to us how we denote speech. We can be conventional or experimental as long as it’s clear and as long as we are consistent. As far as I can see, those are the only rules.