Is “Said” Dead? Laying to Rest Some Myths About Dialogue Tags

tombstone
Is “said” dead?

Are you sick of said?

Said, said, said. Do you get tired of writing that your characters said everything? “Yes, I ate your plums,” he said. She said, “I want to be alone.” “Josh will never eat those Brussels sprouts,” Debbie said, “even if you make him sit there all night.”

Wouldn’t it be more interesting to use a variety of dialogue tags? “Yes, I ate your plums,” he taunted. She whined, “I want to be alone.” “Josh will never eat those Brussels sprouts,” Debbie warned, “even if you make him sit there all night.”

Is said dead?

As I browsed for new pins for my Creative Power Writing Pinterest page, I kept coming across posts like these: “190 Ways to Say ‘Said,’” “I’m Sick of ‘Said,’” “Other Words for ‘Said,’” “‘Said’ is Dead.” Great action verbs were offered—protested, kibitzed, mourned, spluttered, opined… You’d think I’d re-pin those posts and plaster them all over my website and Facebook page, right? 

“I think not!” I harrumph. I mean, I say. [Notice how cleverly I used the present tense of said?] You might have been taught in third grade to use a variety of dialogue tags. There was nothing wrong with that. Your teacher wanted you to become aware of characters’ myriad emotions and actions and that was a way to introduce them, along with action verbs and interesting vocabulary, all in one package.

Grow up!

Now that you’re grown up, though, it’s time to put away those elementary dialogue tags and do what real writers do: use said. Just said. Over and over and over.

I can hear you sputtering now. “Are you kidding me?” you say. “Won’t it sound stupid to use the same word again and again? Won’t readers think I have no imagination? Didn’t you tell us not to repeat words?”

Repeating said sounds counter-intuitive only until you understand the reasoning behind the practice.

Why “said”?

In a perfect world, readers would know who was speaking at all times, the way they do when they watch a TV show, movie, or play. But since readers can’t see your characters, dialogue tags help orient them. You don’t want them to focus on the tags, though. You want them to become so immersed in your characters’ speech that they no longer consciously notice the dialogue tags, but process them intuitively as they read along.

If you use dialogue tags that stand out, like Jack protested or screeched Mirabelle, readers’ attention will be drawn away from what Jack and Mirabelle are saying and redirected to their dialogue tags. You might as well stand over each reader and honk a horn every time a dialogue tag pops up. Precisely because it is used over and over, said fades into the background of the text, becoming invisible. Readers process it internally—almost magically—without needing to stop on it. The actual dialogue flows, unbroken.

Need proof?

Read this passage from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath:

xxxxxMuley said, “I’ve covered her with bresh. Nobody couldn’t find her.” The bottom of the gulch leveled off, and the footing was sand.
xxxxxJoad settled himself on the clean sand. “I ain’t gonna sleep in no cave,” he said. “I’m gonna sleep right here.” He rolled his coat and put it under his head.
xxxxxMuley pulled at the covering brush and crawled into his cave. “I like it in here,” he called. “I feel like nobody can come at me.”
xxxxxJim Casey sat down on the sand beside Joad.
xxxxx“Get some sleep,” said Joad. “We’ll start for Uncle John’s at daybreak.”
xxxxx“I ain’t sleepin’,” said Casy. “I got to much to puzzle with.”

Now consider the same passage with varied dialogue tags:

xxxxxMuley explained, “I’ve covered her with bresh. Nobody couldn’t find her.” The bottom of the gulch leveled off, and the footing was sand.
xxxxxJoad settled himself on the clean sand. “I ain’t gonna sleep in no cave,” he objected. “I’m gonna sleep right here.” He rolled his coat and put it under his head.
xxxxxMuley pulled at the covering brush and crawled into his cave. “I like it in here,” he called. “I feel like nobody can come at me.”
xxxxxJim Casey sat down on the sand beside Joad.
xxxxx“Get some sleep,” grunted Joad. “We’ll start for Uncle John’s at daybreak.”
xxxxx“I ain’t sleepin’,” lamented Casy. “I got to much to puzzle with.”

Did you hesitate as you processed each dialogue tag? Did you lose a bit of the flow of the dialogue with each hesitation? Did the varied tags add meaning that you didn’t get from Steinbeck’s original text?

The case for said–and action details

Indeed, what do varied tags add? Let’s look at one case. Consider these two passages:

  1. “Yes, I took your necklace,” she confessed.

  1. Jill’s eyes widened, then filled with tears. Her hands flew to her throat as she seemed to choke on her words. “Yes, I took your necklace.”

In passage 1, the writer is telling what is happening, rather than creating a scene. Readers are forced to conjure their own details to bring the images and actions to life. You might think this is fine—but it is the writer’s job to create that mental picture for themAnton Chekhov’s famous “show, don’t tell” advice comes to mind: “Don’t tell me the moon is shining. Show me the glint of light on broken glass.”

E. L. Doctorow gets to the heart of why a writer should want to control the details: “Good writing is supposed to evoke sensation in the reader. Not the fact that it is raining, but the feeling of being rained upon.” If you let readers imagine Jill confessing, you can’t be certain which details—if any—they will summon. Thus you can’t control which emotions they feel—or whether they feel any at all.

And in the end, this is a writer’s most important job—to evoke emotion.

Readers are likely to read passage 1 without generating details or emotion. Passage 2 shows the fine details of Jill’s actions—to the point where a dialogue tag isn’t even necessary. Even in a text this short, readers feel Jill’s guilt, perhaps even unconsciously drawing their own hands to their throats.

Okay, okay…maybe you can use one or two other tags…once or twice

You might have noticed that Steinbeck did use one dialogue tag in addition to saidcalled. He’s a famous published author and he gets to do whatever he wants. However, despite my exhortations to you to use only said, it is considered acceptable to use a few other tags. When a character asks a question, you may use asked. And sometimes it sounds better in the conversation to use replied or answered than said.

Although I hesitate to push you down this slippery slope, when dialogue is firing from your characters’ mouths like bullets from AK-47s and too much action detail would bog it down, an occasional tag like whispered or whined can signal a break from the barrage. Be judicious and use these sparingly.

A final point of contention in using other words for said is that sometimes writers choose tags that aren’t speech actions. For example, a wink isn’t dialogue. A character can wink and then he can speak, or he can speak and then wink, but “I’d love to meet your mother,” he winked, is a physical impossibility. Better to write, He winked. “I’d love to meet your mother,” or “I’d love to meet your mother,” he said with a wink.

Alive and kicking

So make said your dialogue tag. Resist the urge to let your characters cackle, snort, wheeze, and exclaim. Unless, of course, you are describing their actions.

xxxxx“Is said dead?” asked the student.
xxxxxThe teacher laughed as she handed him a novel from her desk. “Read the best writers and see what they use.”
xxxxxHe paged through the book. “I see…”
xxxxxShe watched for a moment. “You may need to search for it,” she said, “as it becomes nearly invisible when used correctly.”
xxxxx“What?” The student’s head jerked up. “Sorry, what did you say?”
xxxxxThe teacher smiled. “Enjoy the book,” she said.

What do you think?

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