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Dialogue Tags (Said vs. Everything Else)


Several weeks ago, someone in my writing group posted a list of words to use instead of the dialogue tag “said”. This resulted in a discussion about whether “said” should be used, or whether it should be eradicated from a manuscript completely. Or, perhaps, there is some happy middle-ground which results in dialogue perfection?

Today, I’ll be answering that question… Should “said” be the norm for dialogue, or should you weed it out?

It goes without saying that you should not listen to every piece of advice you receive. This holds true for writing advice as well. You will hear lots of different opinions on dialogue tags. How do you know who is right? First, let’s divide the dialogue debate into three groups:

“SAID” IS BORING AND IT SHOULD NEVER BE USED

This group of people firmly believe that using the dialogue tag “said” is boring, and that instead you should use alternatives like –

exclaimed

shouted

hollered

whispered

mumbled

And the list goes on and on. While it is nice to have a list like this handy, completely weeding out every instance of the word “said” is a bad choice. Why? Because “said” is so common in literature that the brain actually skims over it without really recognizing it is there.

Let’s do a short exercise –

Take a book off your shelf and skim through it. Note how many instances of “said” there are, in comparison to other dialogue tags. What is the balance like? Try another page. Another book. What did you find?

Just to prove that this is not a random exercise I don’t actually believe in, I just paused in order to do this myself. I chose the first book I came to --- Red Queen --- and opened to a random page. Skimming down, I saw a handful of instances of said. I also saw quite a few other dialogue tags, like “murmured”, “whispered”, and “snapped”.

I’ll address this balance later, but before we move on, I just want to point out once more that the word “said” is kind of invisible to our brain. When we read, we are so used to it appearing after a line of dialogue, that it isn’t distracting or flashy.

Replacing all instances of “said” with alternative verbs can weigh down your pacing and kill the flow. Imagine if this dialogue segment appeared in a book --

“We can’t go that way,” I exclaim.

“We have to,” he answers.

“But it’s too dangerous,” I retort.

“There’s no other way,” he shouts.

Those tags are incredibly distracting, no? Now, on the other hand, never using any words besides “said” could be just as detrimental. So appears the second opinion on dialogue tags---

SAID IS THE ONLY THING THAT SHOULD EVER BE USED

Other people tend to go to the opposite extreme, claiming that no alternative phrases should be used. “Said” is invisible, and so it and it alone should be used. Let’s return to the above conversation, and replace all those garish tags with “said” ---

“We can’t go that way,” I say.

“We have to,” he says.

“But it’s too dangerous,” I say.

“There’s no other way,” he says.

Is this any more appealing? Not at all. It’s equally distracting, if not more so. The lines are all the same length, but even if they weren’t --- even if there was some variation --- each phrase is repetitive and monotonous. Even if your characters are having an incredibly interesting conversation, how it is communicated to the reader can either build immense tension and intrigue, or make them want to bang their head against the wall.

And we don’t want any head banging, now do we? ;)

What about the third opinion?

NO DIALOGUE TAGS SHOULD BE USED --- COMMUNICATE THE SPEAKER BY THEIR ACTIONS

The last option is that dialogue tags should be removed completely, and actions should point to the speaker. It would look like something like this ---

I step towards him. “We can’t go that way.”

He sighs. “We have to.”

I shake my head. “But it’s too dangerous.”

He puts out his hands in defeat. “There’s no other way.”

Again, we run into the repetition. Another problem with this is that writers will often include unnecessary actions, in order to avoid using dialogue tags. When you are including action in the place of dialogue tags, make sure the action is important. For example, if a character actually needs to move to a new position, or if the action communicates emotion (like a blush or hand-holding), it is fine. When the actions are there simply to communicate who is talking, they are just hiccups in the pacing.

WHAT SHOULD PROPER DIALOGUE LOOK LIKE, THEN?

Proper dialogue will be a mix of the above three things. Some lines will end in “said”, while others might utilize a different word. Now, there are some dialogue tags that are better to use than others. Choose ones that communicate something that “said” alone cannot. For example---

Exclaimed means practically the same thing as “said” and should be used very sparingly

Whispered, on the other hand, communicates a softer tone, and can signal secrecy, danger, or fear

Murmured is similar to whispered, and often shows reluctance or hesitation

Shouted, in the same way as whispered, communicates a change in volume, and shows anger or urgency

In the end, I can’t tell you what words are better than others, or which you should use. You have to decide what you are trying to communicate, and pick an appropriate tag.

WHEN YOU SHOULD USE “SAID”

“Said” is kind of like a placeholder. It reorients the reader’s attention to who is talking. This is good for if two people are going back and forth, or if lots of people are taking turns speaking. Dropping a “said” in there can subtly point the reader in the right direction.

WHEN YOU SHOULD USE SOMETHING ELSE

Use other dialogue tags when you want to communicate a change in volume or emotion. This can also be communicated through action, and here is where you must decide as the writer. Use these special tags sparingly, as they can become overkill quickly. But it is certainly appropriate to sprinkle them throughout your conversations.

WHEN YOU SHOULD USE NOTHING AT ALL

Using no dialogue tags --- and instead signaling the speaker with an action --- is appropriate when that action is needed. Like I said earlier, don’t throw in random movements just to show who is talking. You see this sometimes with beginning writers (or even experienced ones) when lots of this is happening – “He clasps his hands”, “he sighs”, “he scratches his neck”, etc. These things can reflect details, such as exasperation or anxiety, but if they are there just for the sole purpose of being there, then take them out and use “said” or another word.

WHAT A BALANCED CONVERSATION LOOKS LIKE

Let’s use the above example, and spruce it up to have good balance and flow---

I lean against the glass window, looking out into the night. “We can’t go that way.”

“We have to,” he says, coming to stand beside me.

I glance at him, and at how the moonlight reflects in his eyes. There is pain there, and fear. A swirl of terror snakes through me. “It’s too dangerous.”

He is silent for a long time, and I return my gaze back to the street below.

“There’s no other way,” he finally whispers. The sound of his voices fades into the darkness. We don’t say another word.

I’m not saying this scene is perfect, but doesn’t it read much, MUCH better? Notice that I added other aspects to the dialogue, like description and emotion. The word “whisper” communicates his fear, while descriptions like “a swirl of terror snakes through me” reveal not only her own fear, but serve as a reminder that she is the one speaking now.

Conversations are often one of the most important places in a novel, because they can reflect so much depth and emotion. Lots of characterization happens in dialogue. Relationships are often fleshed-out by two characters talking to each other. Because they are such important places, we never want to cheat them out of their moment to shine. By settling for just one of the three options above, we limit ourselves in the power of conversation.

One last thing to keep in mind is that we as writers don’t want to be noticed by the reader. Now, you are probably sitting there going WHAT!?! What do you mean we don’t want to be noticed?

When a reader reads, they don’t want to read, they want to live. They want to feel like they are a part of the story. Like this place is real, and these characters are alive. Like they matter. When someone finishes reading your book, you want them to feel like that world could go on existing, even though the physical paper and ink story is over.

One thing that can kill this feeling quick is by reminding the reader you --- the writer --- are narrating, instead of the characters. One such interruption can be in dialogue. If you use jarring dialogue tags and lots of lilting, awkward action, the reader will be painfully reminded they are reading and not experiencing a story. By providing good flow and great balance, you keep that reader sucked in and immersed in the world.

Chat with me! What do you think of dialogue tags? Which of the above do you prefer to use? Share in the comments below!

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