Just Use Said: A Writerly Discussion on Dialogue Tags

There are a lot of articles and blog posts on this subject, but I wanted to open a discussion here.

Before I joined a writer’s critique group, my writing was far from publishable. I had adverbs everywhere, along with a lot of ‘said’ synonyms. The more my work was reviewed, the more I realized I had a lot to learn in the writing department.

Like the use of adverbs, I realized that when I began avoiding said-synonyms, I was forced to strengthen the narrative and clarify the action.

I’m not sure about you and your writing, but when I was using said-synonyms, it was as a means to avoid excessive use of ‘said.’ BUT the glorious thing about changing all those tags back to ‘said’ is that you begin to see all the holes in the narrative, giving you the opportunity to strengthen the prose and clarify tone.

Here’s an example:

“And what about you?” I whimpered.

Or.

A shudder rippled through my chest, spilling tears onto my cheeks. I pulled my sleeve over my knuckles and wiped them away. “And what about you?”

The first one is fine, sure. But the second gives a sense of what’s going on outside of the dialogue. As a reader, I start a book for the concept, but stay for the characters. When you take the time to reveal those subtle character traits, like how they interpret what they’re feeling or how they respond to what they’re feeling, the reader is able to get a clearer picture of the character, leading to a better connection between your writing and the reader.

Substituting action for dialogue tags also provides a more cinematic reading experience. Going back to the example, whimpered describes how it is said, but when you add in the details of the character wiping away the tears with her sleeve, you get to see what the character is doing. Again, this gives the reader more insight into the character, making the reader more sympathetic to the character’s cause/goals.

Of course, these are just my thoughts and preferences as a reader and writer. I believe that writing, like most arts, is incredibly subjective, so if you have additional thoughts, please share them in the comments section below.

 

 

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6 thoughts on “Just Use Said: A Writerly Discussion on Dialogue Tags

  1. I hear a lot of arguments that “said” becomes repetitive but I actually find that the opposite happens. Once the dialogue and surrounding narrative get punched up, “said” then becomes invisible and unobtrusive. (I also allow “asked” when the dialogue is a question.)

    Liked by 1 person

    • I completely agree. The only time I ever find ‘said’ to be repetitive is when the writer uses ‘said [adverb]ly’ to define tone. But again, simply expanding the surrounding narrative would lessen the need for those extra adverbs.

      Thanks for chiming in on the discussion!

      Like

  2. I use mostly ‘said’ and ‘asked’. The lovely thing about ‘said’ is that the brain filters it out as noise letting it act as an indicator about who is talking but nothing more. If I can avoid the tag I do, so, if possible, I may put one said, then three or four lines without speech tags (provided they are easy to discern), and then add a ‘said’ again. I use ‘said’ a lot if more than two people are talking, as it can easily become confusing.

    I love your example above; it’s not just about the speech tag but also about telling vs showing.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Aura!

      It really does come down to clarity, doesn’t it? Like you said, when more than just two people are talking, tags become more important for the reader to discern who is talking. Whenever this happens in my own work, I have to scoop to the bottom of my creativity bucket in order to keep the prose from getting bogged down. All I can say is hurray for revision! lol

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  3. You wrote this very well! I never notice too many “saids” when I read. I think the reader is more engaged in the story and what’s going to happen next, and less of the repetitive “said’s”. This is only a small part of the dialogue and context, unless you’re a huge writer/book fanatic, I don’t see it as a problem. Great blog 🙂

    Like

  4. I really like your example! 😉 I also think it’s important for the character’s voice to be heard in the narrative.
    In my opinion it’s this fine balance and crazy juggling act of getting the right amount of “showing” with the right amount of characterization. That way, when a character does say something, the reader “knows” the character so well that not only is the dialogue tag either not noticeable or negligible, but rather the reader can actually “hear” the tone with which that character would say it. To me that’s the hardest part, getting the voice right, I let “said” stay if they must for clarity.

    Liked by 1 person

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