Whose Line is It?

Previously from the category On Writing


When most people think about character speech, they may only be thinking of what comes out of that character’s mouth. I’m here to tell you that there is a plethora of ways to deliver a character’s speech rather than simple dialogue.

In this week’s article on writing we’ll discuss a bit about how to deliver certain emotions through your character(s) without using over-the-top tags or too many adverbs.


Knowing how to tag your character’s words in general (Ex. “That’s what,” she said.) is something you need to knows. If you don’t know, well, you’re on the internet. You’ll find your way. I have faith in you, dear reader.


Normal Delivery of Speech

This should really be titled ‘Typical Delivery of Speech’, but I didn’t want to step on any toes by using the derogatory term of typical.

Normally, when you’re delivering speech, it looks a bit like this:


“Have you ever seen such a beautiful bouquet of flowers,” Terry asked.

“No, never in my life,” said Karen.


Basic stuff, right?

When I say typical, I just mean bland. There’s no correcting something like this because certain situations call for a break of sorts from over-the-top dialogue.

This isn’t because the description of the flowers are bad or that the story leading up to this conversation was boring, but having uninteresting character conversation can destroy a good story if it goes on forever like this.

Equally, bad dialogue as a whole will lose attention faster than an analogy comparing waiting for cancer test results to waiting in line at a sandwich shop. It’ll make your readers think, ‘the f@#* is this guy talking about?’


Spicing It Up Just A Bit

This is where I step into the opinion zone. I don’t have a Ph.D. in English, nor will I probably ever, but what I can tell you from reading bad literature is this: if you’re offering someone an escape to your world through the medium of words, it HAS to be interesting.

As technology progresses, it’s not going to get any easier to suede someone into reading what you’ve written. It simply needs to be good. New readers don’t know what they want, veteran readers know exactly what they don’t want, and the non-readers, well, they can stick to YouTube for all I care.

Point is, you need to know how to attract both kinds of readers, and if you’re skilled enough take a few away from the videos, you might be doing something right.

That would be an interesting challenge, actually.

Getting back on topic, when your characters talk, apart from being very clear and reasonably creative with tagging their speech, it’s good to stay interwoven within the story. And, by all means, if you believe a piece of dialogue deserves to be a paragraph all its own, then write it that way. It’s your story, dammit.

But sometimes, standalone speech can be dangerous if given too much zest*.

This is an example of over-seasoning your tagging (or whatever metaphorical imagery you’d like to use to better associate the example):


“By God, I’m going to teach this class it’s the last thing I do,” she boiled fiercely and angrily with rage.


No offense if you write this way, but I’m siding with an author on this one. In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King addresses the issues with using adverbs all the time.

This is an excessive example, but if you’re delivering your character’s overall body language, expressions, appearance, thought processes, or anything an adverb attempts to deliver, there’s no need in using them every time someone says something.

Let your description compliment your characters’ speech. Let their voice be more than just words. Action, people! Action!

A good example may look something like this:

The teacher perused into the noisy classroom, pursed lips and elbows point behind her; her books were taught to her chest. Giving a forceful grunt, she slammed the books upon he desk, peering at the now silent classroom with glassy eyes. “By god, I’m going to teach this class if it’s the last thing I do,” she said with an exact tone.

Something about this description beforehand paints a brighter, more vivid image, in my opinion.

*Fun fact: Stephen King despises words with the root of zest.

On Tagging

Sometimes people may try and tell you that it’s only possible to get across how your character said something by using large and gaudy ‘tag’ words.

‘What constitutes a tag word,’ you may ponder (That,

A tag word is anything that can be used to identify how, to whom, or to what degree your character says something.

That being said, don’t think you have to know hundreds, or even use dozens, of these more obnoxious tag words to be considered a good writer. Anyone who sets criteria like this for a young writer may think a bit too highly of themselves.

Point is not to be too excessive when you use them. It just reads too lazy.

Excessive description through over-the-top tag words is unnecessary if you know what you want to write about and have a clear picture of it in your mind. Granted, even Stephen King will let fly with a she shrieked or a he wailed, but he chooses his moments wisely, and for good reason.

It’s like supply and demand people. You supply too many and the demand will plummet, making your tale flop like a fish.

Also, his reluctance of adverbs, especially to tag a character, is notable when he compares it to lying. He says, “I try to do both as little as possible.”


You’re Still Reading?

At the end of the day, I can’t tell you how to write your stories. What I can do is make the occasional suggestion.

When it comes to your writing, sometimes it’s easier to simply say what needs to be said by your character and move on. Drop the fluff and get on with the story.

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