Today I’d like to talk about the use of speech tags in longer passages of dialogue. When a character’s speech is quite long, there are issues around construction that we need to consider. Bearing in mind a few simple rules can make a dramatic difference to the flow of your writing, and foremost among these is the placement of the speech tag.
Typically in dialogue, each character will say one or two sentences at a time. Occasionally, however, someone will make a longer speech. In theory, such a speech can run for a number of paragraphs or even several pages, although in general I don’t recommend this. You don’t want to sound like Robert Heinlein on one of his polemical rants. But there are valid reasons to write longer character speeches, and when we do it, we need to consider several things.
Who is speaking?
In most dialogue, it is clear to the reader who is speaking without any special effort on your part, because you are either using speech tags, or indicating the speaker’s identity in some other way, whether by action or by the mode of speech, for example if one character speaks a dialect or has some annoying speech habit. This is not always the case, however, and particularly in scenes where there are a number of speakers and they are from similar backgrounds, care needs to be taken to ensure that it is clear to the reader just who is speaking.
Tags Are Not Enough
Now, you may say, oh I used a speech tag, so it is clear. But with a long speech, the bare existence of a speech tag is not enough. The position of it becomes important.
Consider the following paragraph:
“You’ve got a nerve, complaining about a few unwashed dishes. That cat of yours is always vomiting everywhere,” said Joe.
Now this is all very well in its way, but it’s still reasonably clear who is speaking, because with a normal reading speed the reader has come to the tag before he really has time to wonder about it. It’s still inelegant, though. Look at how the flow is improved when you move the tag up to the first natural speech pause.
“You’ve got a nerve,” said Joe, “complaining about a few unwashed dishes. That cat of yours is always vomiting everywhere.”
By doing this, we’ve accomplished two things: we’ve enhanced clarity by identifying the speaker right at the beginning, but we’ve also given a slight emphasis to the main point of what he is saying. In most long spoken speeches, people tend to make the main point first and then elaborate on it. So we’ve made our dialogue sound just that bit more natural, as well as enhancing the clarity of it.
“Never mind the bloody cat. Don’t change the subject. You need to clean up after yourself when you cook,” I told him, stomping off to my room.
We can fix this speech in the same way as shown above, but because of the added bit of action, we need to restructure it slightly.
“Never mind the bloody cat,” I told him. “Don’t change the subject. You need to clean up after yourself when you cook.” I stomped off to my room.
Do you see how there is now a subtle emphasis placed on the speaker’s refusal to consider the cat as relevant, and with the stronger indicative verb replacing the gerund, the action is also given more force. These tiny shades of meaning can add a great deal of life and colour to a piece of writing.
There is a simple rule of thumb we can follow in deciding where to place a speech tag. You place it where the first piece of punctuation occurs. There may be exceptions to this, but as a general guide it is pretty reliable. Of course, this presumes that you are using your commas correctly. A discussion of the use of commas in dialogue is outside the scope of this article, but I will just mention that they serve to mark the points where small pauses would be made by a speaker.
Let’s look at a longer paragraph.
“What is it about cats and litter boxes? I had to wait ten minutes for him to finish using it, standing there like a stale bottle of you-know-what while he scratches and scratches, scratching down the wall, scratching on the floor, all the time sniffing and shaking his back feet, and then when he finally gets out of the way and I scoop it and clean it and leave it all perfect, then he immediately runs back in, jumps into the box and goes again. It’s like he can’t stand seeing it clean,” said Joe, shoving the mop under the running tap and spraying water everywhere.
The greater length of this paragraph shows you how truly awful it is, doesn’t it? Now look at it with the tag moved appropriately.
“What is it about cats and litter boxes?” said Joe, shoving the mop under the running tap. “I had to wait ten minutes for him to finish using it, standing there like a stale bottle of you-know-what while he scratches and scratches, scratching down the wall, scratching on the floor, all the time sniffing and shaking his back feet, and then when he finally gets out of the way and I scoop it and clean it and leave it all perfect, then he immediately runs back in, jumps into the box and goes again. It’s like he can’t stand seeing it clean.” Water was spraying everywhere, and he angrily shut off the tap, starting a hammer in the pipes.
Here I’ve also moved a bit of the action up, and left its consequences at the end, and added a hammer in the pipes. But the main point of this is that the reader knows who is speaking right from the start. A collateral benefit is that the action (shoving the mop under the tap) and its consequence (water spraying everywhere) are slightly separated now, providing a better impact, as the spraying everywhere is now clearly seen to have been unintended, which the first paragraph did not make clear.
Even in a very short sentence, you can use this technique to add a little zing to your dialogue.
For example: “The cat sat on the mat,” said Joe.
“The cat,” said Joe, “sat on the mat.”
Do you see the difference? In the first sentence, Joe delivers a bald statement of fact. In the second sentence, he is owning his statement. He believes it.
To sum up: In any speech that is longer than one very short, simple sentence, if you are using a speech tag at all, it should be moved up to the front, to the first point at which there is a natural break, and this will generally be signified by the first punctuation mark. In addition, you can use the positioning of the tag even in a very short sentence to place the speaker’s emphasis where you want it.