We’ve all heard the old adage, “Said is dead.”
It’s fair to say this has become something of a great debate among writers, right up there with Oxford Comma usage. Some people will tell you Said is the only dialogue tag to use, while others advise against using it and provide substitutes like shouted, explained, declared, etc. You’re guaranteed to find a multitude of opinions on the subject, and that was why it caused so much stress for me in my earliest writing days.
Back in school, my main academic goal was to please the instructor when it came to any assignment, especially written ones. I lived and breathed the rubric handed out with the prompt, whether it was a bulleted list of expectations of a grid breaking down the exactness of possible points earned for each aspect of the essay from the formatting to the content to the bibliography.
You prefer using toward rather than towards? That’s cool, that’s what the Find and Replace command in Microsoft Word is for. You’d rather I use APA formatting for this particular term paper instead of MLA? I mean it’ll take a smidge to figure it out but okay. No Oxford Commas allowed? If that’s what you really want, fine. I’ll suck it up this one time.
This perfectionist mentality transitioned from my academic writing perspective to the creative one I was trying to develop and had me on the hunt for some sort of rubric telling me what to do. Since my high school didn’t offer any creative writing classes, I ended up turning to the internet for guidance, meaning I went from zero instructors on the subject to hundreds with a single click.
The majority of dialogue-related rules I found made sense enough to me. Start a new paragraph when the speaker changes. Make sure the reader knows which character is talking. Transition from the speech to the dialogue tag with a comma. Easy enough and fairly standard across the board—that is, until I hit dialogue tags. It felt like I was going in circles trying to find the right answer. My academic side was taking over, trying to somehow please every single blogger and BookTuber I found.
It took me a while to realize this—and it’s still something I’m learning even now—but the truth about creative writing is that there’s not always going to be a single rule for any one thing, and that includes dialogue tags.
As such, there is nobody I absolutely have to please when it comes to my writing except for myself (and an editor when I get there).
So, what’s my dialogue usage like? To tell you the truth, rather than following the rule I was so desperate to obey, my developing style of writing bends it a bit.
Take a look at the following passage:
Version One – Said Only and Everywhere
Jake approached the piano.
“You play quite well,” he said.
“Oh,” Mary said. “Thank you. I’ve not had much practice, I’m afraid.”
“Really?” he said. “I never would have guessed.”
In this version, Said is the only dialogue tag used. To me, this comes across as being unnecessarily repetitive. Granted, I’ve used it in all of the above sentences without much else, but I’ll be building on it as we go.
In most of the readings supporting Said as the only dialogue tag to use reasoned this is because the reader’s mind tends to ignore it the same way it skims over things like commas and periods. Writers in favor of Said say it’s less intrusive than alternatives like screamed, mumbled, or stated.
To me, however, Said feels a little too generic and does not provide the reader with enough detail. It adds a sense of distance between the reader and the scene rather than bringing them into a more immersive experience.
Additionally, and I don’t know why this is, I tend to notice Said more often than its substitutes. I think it reasonable to attribute this one one of the last steps in my editing process, where I run the chapter I am working on through a Word Frequency Counter to make sure I am not overusing any words in the narration of the passage (whereas I am a little more forgiving towards dialogue). Because of this, I tend to notice the repetition of a word throughout a piece of fiction.
Version Two – Said with Adverbs
Jake approached the piano.
“You play quite well,” Jake said quietly.
“Oh,” Mary said hesitantly. “Thank you. I’ve not had much practice, I’m afraid.”
“Really?” he said. “I never would have guessed.”
This sample provides a little more depth, in that we now know the volume Jake is speaking at and the tone of Mary’s response being shy. While this is a step up from the previous version of this passage, it is not as strong as the imagery can be. The second sentence tells the reader Mary is hesitant to respond, possibly out of shyness or being intimidated by Jake’s compliment, but it relies too heavily on the use of the adverb hesitantly.
Rather than using Said and an adverb, a stronger impact can be created with the use of synonyms.
Version Three – Said Alternatives
Jake approached the piano.
“You play quite well,” Jake whispered.
“Oh,” Mary replied. “Thank you. I’ve not had much practice, I’m afraid.”
“Really? I never would have guessed.”
The difference between this example and the first two is the use of synonyms whispered and replied. This adds some variety to the writing, as well as giving a little hint about the sound of Jake’s voice. As important as the dialogue itself is, importance also has to be placed on the way it’s being spoken. Jake whispering to Mary informs the reader he is speaking at a low volume. Expanding upon this further may reveal his intent. Maybe he’s speaking at a whisper to avoid being heard by a crowd, or he might be speaking in a more seductive, flirtatious tone.
Additionally, I’ve also removed the third iteration of Said, as the reader can infer Jake is speaking the third line.
Using body language to convey the same effect creates a stronger image, bringing the reader closer to the scene and its characters and cause them to become more invested.
Version Four – Dialogue Tags with Body Language
“You play quite well,” Jake whispered as he smoothed his hand over the burnished top of the piano and watched the tiny hammers striking the taut strings inside its core.
“Oh,” Mary replied with an askance glimpse, and her fingers stilled in the middle of a measure. “Thank you. I’ve not had much practice, I’m afraid.”
“Really?” He chuckled and stepped nearer to view the complex music displayed on the sheets before her. “I never would have guessed.”
This version provides more insight to the ongoing scene. It gives us a sense of where the characters are positioned in relation to one another, avoiding what one of my writing professors often called “Floating Head Syndrome” (meaning that although we had the dialogue, it wasn’t grounded in the scene). The use of body language also shows Mary’s emotion in this scene, that she is indeed intimidated by Jake’s interest in her musical talent.
This is close to my preferred style of writing, but not exactly how I handle dialogue tags. It may sound a bit strange if not downright bizarre, but I typically refrain from using dialogue tags when possible.
Version Five – No Dialogue Tags
“You play quite well.” Jake lowered his voice to a hush as he smoothed his hand over the burnished top of the piano and watched the tiny hammers striking the strings inside its core.
His shadow loomed over Mary’s fingers, and they slowed to a stop in the middle of the measure as she studied him in an askance glimpse.
“Oh.” A tepid pink crept into her cheeks, and she resumed the melody with a shake of her head. “Thank you. I’ve not had much practice I’m afraid.”
“Really?” He stepped nearer to view the complex music displayed on the sheets before her, and an impish chuckle escaped him. “I never would have guessed.”
When I tell people I typically write without implementing dialogue tags, it’s usually met with skepticism. But for me, this is the most effective way to convey a scene and focus more on what is happening as a line is being spoken. The majority of my works center heavily on the interactions between characters, and this allows me to describe that in more depth. As I mentioned earlier, it’s not just what is being said but the way it is being spoken and what a character is doing as he or she speaks. In our day-to-day interactions, we don’t acknowledge just the fact a person has spoken, but the way it was said and their body language as they spoke. To me, lessening the frequency of my dialogue tags creates a more real-world experience in my fiction.
Earlier in this post, I refer to the comparison made between Said and commas in terms of how most readers’ minds perceive them, and how Said somehow sticks out more to mine. Yes, I’ve had some people who have noticed my lack of dialogue tags at first, but the overall consensus from classmates, professors, and my critique partner seem to be that their recognition of it lessens pretty quickly. It’s a stylistic choice, really, and while it may be somewhat unconventional compared to what is deemed the norm or standard practice, it works for me. One of the struggles I had early on was developing my voice as a writer, but dropping my use of Said and its synonyms seems to have helped me establish it.
This is not to say I rule out dialogue tags completely. Most often, I use them in reference to the volume of character’s voice or its tone as seen above with Jake’s assessment of Mary’s musical talent, or if I have a substantial number of characters contributing to an ongoing conversation. Beyond that, however, it feels like Said and the majority of its synonyms act more as platitudes. I know a line is being said because of the quotation marks surrounding it; as long as I know who is speaking, I know they are speaking the line. In genres geared towards younger audiences, I could see this distinction being of use. I write in the New Adult and Adult demographic, the former of which is still developing and becoming more prevalent in the mainstream, with more mature content. Although it is slowly happening, my writing style is beginning to reflect that.
Overall, the thing to keep in mind with dialogue tags is that like everything else about writing, is everyone is entitled to their own opinion. There is no right answer, nor is there a wrong answer. It all comes down to your style and preferences.
How do you feel about dialogue tags? Are you a steadfast Said user? Do you prefer to use alternatives? Let me know in the comments below!