One aspect of writing dialogue is how effective a good speech tag can be in carrying emotion forward through the plot.
In the professional writing program at the University of Oklahoma, we define tags as bits of information attached to characters that make them distinct in some way or provide information to readers. There are multiple kinds of tags: speech tags, mannerisms, physical appearance, tags of personality, etc.
Think of an item of clothing in a department store. You have a tag that lists the fiber content, a tag that states the country of manufacture, a tag that gives the size and price, etc.
In the hands of an inexperienced writer, a speech tag may be nothing more than an overused expression distinctive to its assigned character. For example:
“Why don’t you get off that dratted chair and come help me shift this hay bale?” John demanded.
“You only had to ask me.”
“I shouldn’t have to ask! You dratted boys are all alike. Lazy, shiftless, no-good, dratted lunk-heads, that’s you!”
The awkward repetition of “dratted” wears thin fast. It’s serving no purpose other than to be something John habitually says.
In contrast, an effective speech tag conveys personality, uniqueness, and emotion. It’s a reaction to what’s happening in the story. It may indicate a decision within the character, as well.
Consider the character Will in David Lean’s 1954 comedy, HOBSON’S CHOICE. In this film, Will (played by John Mills) is a shy, semi-literate, inarticulate cobbler. He happens to also be an exceptionally talented shoemaker who’s exploited by his employer, Mr. Hobson. But during the course of the film, Will is pushed beyond his comfort zone and low expectations into becoming the owner of his own business.
At key points in the film, Will is struck by his progress. Each time he learns to assert himself, his future opens up to an even bigger and brighter one. And at these important turning points in the story, Will can only express himself by staring wide-eyed and saying, “By … gum!”
It is, in fact, the last line of dialogue in the movie.
Of course, the actor John Mills injects different tones and inflections into that simple phrase, but because “By gum” isn’t overused or mindlessly repeated, it becomes delightful whenever it’s spoken.
Another example of a well-done speech tag comes from Janet Evanovich’s comedic mystery series centered around bounty hunter Stephanie Plum. Stephanie fumbles through her investigations with a cast of often zany secondary characters to help or hinder her. One of the two romantic leads is Ranger, a mysterious, dangerous, sexy security expert who sometimes does bounty work with Stephanie. Often, he’s called in to rescue her from a tight spot or to provide her with transportation after her car is blown up. (She loses her car in nearly every book. A different kind of tag.)
Ranger’s speech tag is “Babe.”
If he meets Stephanie for breakfast and he’s eating a tofu wrap and she sits down with a donut, Ranger’s laconic comment of “Babe” indicates his reproachful opinion of her junk-food diet.
If he sees Stephanie splattered in blood or paint, watching the fire department douse her burning car, “Babe” takes on a much gentler, sympathetic connotation.
And if Stephanie’s staying at his place because her apartment door has been kicked in by a goon, when she walks out of the shower in a towel and encounters Ranger in the bedroom, “Babe” can mean anything from admiration to desire.
So, in designing your characters and their styles of expressing themselves, check to see if you’ve given any of them useful speech tags that will personify them, show their emotions, and advance the story.