Speech tags are those bits of description attached to dialogue. For example:
"You underestimate me, Paul," Sarah said, lifting her chin.
As Anne Marie ran down the stairs, she looked over her shoulder and shouted, "You can't catch me!"
Once you begin to notice speech tags when you read, you'll never stop. They're everywhere. Sometimes, the speech tag is an adverb that is used to describe how a character actually sounds when she says something:
"You underestimate me, Paul," Sarah said loftily.
These adverbs (generally, words ending in -ly) can become quite silly if used too often. In fact, there is even a term for them: Tom Swifty. A 'Tom Swifty' is a pun, such as:
"I'm on fire," he said hotly.
"Anyone can do that," she said easily.
Using too many speech tags can make your writing appear clumsy or childish. Your characters should be able to express themselves with their actions rather than rely on you, the author, to tell the readers what is going on. For example:
Andrew frowned and shoved his hands into his pockets. "It's not fair," he said.
is better than:
"It's not fair," Andrew said huffily.
Another way to correct speech tags is to turn them into independent sentences of their own. For example:
"I hate you," Gwynneth said and covered her face with her hands.
Change this to:
"I hate you," Gwynneth said. She covered her face with her hands.
Some writers will even go so far as to say that a writer should never use speech tags other than 'said' when writing. While I think that 90% of speech tags can be effectively written out of a dialogue, I do think that an occasional one is fine. Stephen King is one author who, in his book, On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft said that speech tags should be eliminated, yet, if you read his work, you will see that he still uses them. I would suggest that if you see that your writing has more than one speech tag per page (other than a simple, 'said'), you need to do some editing.
A final thing to notice about speech tags is that, other than said, there are a few words that be used when your characters give voice. For example:
"I'm sorry," she whispered.
"I'm sorry," she shouted.
"I'm sorry," she admitted.
"I'm sorry," she whimpered.
Please notice that 'smiled' is not among these words! Someone cannot smile something. She can smile and say something, but she cannot just smile it.
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