Why ‘Said’ is the Best Dialogue Tag

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‘Said’ seems lifeless, and empty, right? That must be why many college writing tutors abhor the word and insist students must be more creative in their word choices. ‘Said is boring. Why not use the beauty of the English language to convey character and make them stand out?’ A writer asked me. Let the gripping dialogue itself do that, along with their actions, thoughts and everything else, I said.
This post will talk about why said isn’t dead, and why it’s almost always the best choice to tag dialogue with. And on a similar note, you’ll find out why adverbs can be counterintuitive to your dialogue. The examples of dialogue aren’t exactly what you’d call electrifying by any means but serve to illustrate the point.

What are dialogue tags?

Simply put, they are ‘tags’ that let the reader know who is speaking within dialogue.

‘Like this,’ reader said.
‘Exactly so,’ replied Matt.
‘They can even be positioned in the middle of the sentence,’ Matt added, ‘which is useful for when a character gives a lengthy speech but the writer doesn’t want to make the reader wait until the end to show who’s speaking.’

The various possibilities of tag placement create some confusion over how to puncutate dialogue. I have a free guide on the subject (just scroll down and click the image of the booklet in the footer).

If it’s obvious who is speaking, such as when two characters’ dialogue is back and forth, a tag isn’t needed and will act as unnecessary bloat. Always make sure you give a new speaker a new line.

Other speech tags include shouted, whispered, argued, muttered, and so on. A common mistake is to use tags that aren’t directly related to speech.

‘What is that?’ Blake gasped.
‘That … is disgusting,’ Rhianne grimaced.
‘Better watch your back,’ he sneered.

Someone cannot physically sneer a sentence; they can, however, say it and sneer separately: ‘Better watch your back,’ he said, sneering. Or simply: ‘Better watch your back.’ He sneered at them.

There are also shades of appropriateness. You can arguably sigh something like ‘Oh, darling’, but not a full sentence!

Why is 'said' better?

Renni Browne and Dave King in their book Self-Editing for Fiction Writers say it best: ‘It is, and should be, an almost mechanical device—more like a punctuation mark than a verb. It’s absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant.’

Its very ‘boring’ nature is exactly why said works so well. Readers’ eyes skip over the word, much like mine do when the total bill is displayed at a till during a weekly food shop these days.

‘Said’ performs its task invisibly, letting the dialogue do the work. Imagine reading a book full of the following:

‘I can’t believe you would do that!’ Roland shouted.
‘I didn’t mean it, I promise,’ Jean pleaded.
‘You couldn’t have asked me first?’ Roland bellowed.
‘Woah, come on. Calm down,’ Mark interjected.

Tiring, isn’t it?

Here’s an improved version:

‘I can’t believe you would do that!’ Roland said, slamming his fist on the table.
‘I didn’t mean it, I promise.’
‘You couldn’t have asked me first?’
‘Woah, come on. Calm down.’ Mark said.

Adding an action beat that shows his anger negates the need to explain Roland is shouting – readers can infer this from his actions. Adding action beats in between speech is also another useful way to have characters interact with their environment, showing a reader their surroundings rather than having it introduced through exposition or an info dump.

The only other tag needed is when a new speaker enters the scene. That way it reads a lot less like the writer is banging us over the head with author intrusion.

'Said' is absolutely transparent, which makes it graceful and elegant.

Adverbs with tags

-ly words (fearfully, masterfully, horribly) used in conjunction with dialogue tags add, often unnecessarily, extra words for the reader to digest and comprehend. It’s rather common for the novice writer who, unconfident in their writing, uses these words to clarify how the character is feeling or how they’re speaking.

This results in either of the following problems:

  • the adverb introduces redundancy to dialogue
  • the dialogue isn’t strong enough to convey meaning

‘I-I don’t have long left.’ She cried, fearfully. ‘Wow, I actually did it’, she said, astonishingly. Both are examples of poor adverb use: they explain to the reader something already made evident in the dialogue. If dialogue can sustain the same meaning without adverbs, remove the bulk.

For the latter bullet point, if a dialogue tag is required to convey the feeling, the dialogue needs sprucing up rather than relying on adverbs.

Before: ‘I did it,’ he said, excitedly.

After: ‘Guys, guys, you won’t believe what I just did,’ he said, hands waving.

Yes, you’re left with a slightly larger word count, but you gain something tangible, an image that can stick into readers’ heads and shows them how he feels.

When they do work, similarly to tags, is when they add something useful to the meaning of the speech. For example:

‘Sure, let’s go into the cave,’ I said, reluctantly.

Here, the speech doesn’t convey how the character feels. And while I just made the point to change the speech if it doesn’t convey the meaning, suppose she wishes to hide her fears from her friends. Outwardly, the dialogue doesn’t reveal her aversion to the idea, but the adverb works here to clue the reader in.

‘[insert a genius proposition],’ he said, pretty convincingly.

Why does this work? The adverb isn’t modifying the speech, telling us how it was said. Rather, it’s revealing the viewpoint character’s opinion on what was said – something that couldn’t be conveyed through the speech alone. It could have easily been ‘he argued uselessly/pointlessly’.

Adverbs work when they add something useful to the meaning of the speech.

Final thoughts...

We’ve seen how over-the-top dialogue tags and adverbs can bloat up and add redundancies to your prose. Either the dialogue is strong enough without the added author intrusion, or the dialogue isn’t strong enough without it and should be revised. This, however, isn’t to say they should all be cut: a few here and there won’t hurt, but don’t overdo it! In most cases though, said is just fine because of how invisible it is. Use different dialogue tags or adverbs when:

  • they add something useful to the meaning (they’re not lazy)
  • they express something unavailable to capture with speech (the viewpoint character’s opinions of dialogue that isn’t their own)

Don’t use them to:

  • explain to the reader the speaker’s emotions or how their speech was said
  • make the prose more ‘varied’ or ‘exciting’ – that’s not the function of dialogue tags/tag phrases
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