Speech Therapy


An awful lot of bullshit has been written about fictional dialogue. Here is my contribution.

Dialogue is included in a story for three reasons.

1) Dialogue establishes character.
2) Dialogue moves the plot forward.
3) Dialogue imparts important information.

Anything else is extraneous and should really be cut.

There are plenty of contentious issues in the world of dialogue and most arguments fall into the categories of dialects, speech tags and italics. The truth is these arguments are nothing more than readers and writers arguing for their own personal preferences.

I’ve never written speech in a dialect, but that’s only because I find it confusing and unnecessary. (i.e. “Wot t’fook ah ya talkin’ aboot?“) It doesn’t work for me, but I can say the same thing about baked potatoes. Those people who say that no editor would ever touch a manuscript where the majority of dialogue is written to imply dialect are forgetting the popularity of James Herriot’s All Creatures Great and Small stories.

In short it’s a judgement call. If you think dialect makes your story more convincing you must use it. If you think it makes the text inaccessible, clumsy or simply spoils the fluency of your prose: lose it. There are other ways to suggest a regional dialect that can be equally effective.

Speech tags are equally prone to cause volatile arguments. Some writers say they’re redundant and I can follow this argument. He said; she said; Jack said and Jill said can all be deemed unnecessary. If it’s got speech marks at either end of the sentence it’s obviously been said. The context of the sentence should make it clear as to who said what and the manner in which the statement was made.

But this isn’t always true and therefore I can’t agree that speech tags are completely unnecessary. I’m not the brightest lightbulb in the box and I can easily get lost in a conversation. After an exchange that goes over four or five lines I’m struggling to remember who spoke first and who is currently talking to me. He said; she said; Jack said and Jill said are all lines that help me to remember who’s speaking.

Still on the thorny subject of speech tags, I know some readers cringe when they come across speech tags with verbs, adverbs or adjectives. He said coolly; she said softly; Jack purred; Jill spat. Too many of these can prove to be a distraction. Any repetition will jar the reader from the fantasy world that has been created. Unfamiliar words can have the reader putting down the book and picking up the dictionary and this is never a good thing.

But, ultimately, the decision as to whether or not to write in this style is a matter of individual preference.

Consider the following:

“Are you fucking him?”

As a single line of speech it means nothing. But with the addition of a speech tag we can transform it to this:

“Are you fucking him?” Jill spat.

In this variation we can see Jill is not happy about the situation. With only two words in the form of a speech tag we have altered the sentence to show that Jill has spoken and she is angry and possibly not best pleased with the situation.

Yes, it’s true that speech tags can be overdone. But used judiciously, they can be an effective way of conveying so much more than what is simply being said.

And then there’s the perennial argument about italics.

I’ve always believed italics are the ideal way to stress the point of a sentence. But I can sympathise with those who despise italics because, when they’re used too often, they can quickly grow wearisome.

However, salted conservatively over the page, italics can make the meaning and intent of speech a lot clearer. To use the same example as before, take a look at the difference between the following sentences:

“Are you fucking him?”

“Are you fucking him?”

In the first, the questioner wants to know if sexual intercourse is occurring between his questionee and an unnamed male. The stress is on his surprise that sexual intercourse is occurring.

In the second there is no doubt that sexual intercourse is taking place but it seems to shock or amaze the questioner that this specific unnamed male could be involved.

Without the italics we don’t know where the stress should be. With them we can convey an explicit meaning that won’t be misinterpreted.

Dialect, speech tags and italics are all tools that can and should be used if they fit your individual style of writing. And they should be left alone if they don’t work for you. We all speak differently and, if our fiction is to be credible, we should account for that in the dialogue we create.

Ashley Lister
May/June 2006

“The Write Stuff” © 2006 Ashley Lister. All rights reserved.

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