We remark. She stutters. He queries. They call.
Writers spend a lot of time talking about dialogue tags, and most of the conversation seems to be about avoiding the most dreaded dialogue tag of them all.
Did you hear the ominous music in the background? Did you? It was there. Why? Because, we are informed by “experts” that the use of “said” as a dialogue tag is amateurish. Banal. Repetitive. In fact, it’s one of the hallmarks of a new writer.
I had no idea! “Said,” to the penalty box with you!
Okay, really, I did have an idea. But I like being contrary, so I’m here today to confess my dirty little secret.
I love “said.”
I do. I use it all the time. You’ve probably never noticed for reasons I’ll explain in just a bit, but you know who else uses it?
Pretty much every writer of English ever.
“Really?” you inquire.
“Yes,” I respond.
First, let’s talk about dialogue tags in general. I avoid them as often as possible. I’m a great believer in letting body language or other action indicate to the reader who is talking. Example:
“It’s like he’s from another planet, Grandma.”
“He’s old-fashioned…and European. Maybe he just doesn’t advertise online. There’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But not even a public telephone listing for his business? Not a single mention? It just seems odd.” She sat at the breakfast table, drinking coffee and watching her grandmother start the chili verde for dinner that night.
“Do you feel unsafe with him?” Isadora turned to her, a look of concern evident on her face. “You’re alone with him in that reading room for hours every week. I won’t have you feeling unsafe.”
Beatrice shook her head. “No, it’s not that. There’s just something…”
Isadora turned back to the stove. “You’re creating a mystery where there is none, Mariposa. I think he’s a nice man. Just old-fashioned.”
In this passage from Chapter Four of A Hidden Fire, Beatrice and her grandmother are having a conversation about the mysterious scholar Beatrice has met at the library. Not a single dialogue tag is used, but hopefully, it’s clear who is talking from the body language or action mentioned.
Using this technique also gives a more dynamic feel to conversations and is a great way to develop character. Does your character have a habitual action? A nervous tic? Avoiding dialogue tags forces you to develop your character’s body language, and not just their voice.
But the fact is, there are times that you just want to focus on dialogue, particularly if it is a rapid fire kind of conversation or the middle of an action scene. In those cases, you want the dialogue to be quick and lean. Sometimes it’s in the midst of a larger group scene. When you have more than two people talking, spending too much time mentioning what each is doing can make the reader feel like they’re watching a particularly confusing ping-pong match.
In those cases, you want your dialogue tags to be just that: tags. Quick notes in the text to let the reader know who is talking and nothing else. You don’t want to indicate tone of voice or movement. You don’t need nuance. You need identity, and that is all.
And that’s why I love “said.”
Why? Because “said” is the dialogue tag that isn’t. Try it sometime. Look over a favorite bit of dialogue in a book. Many times, you’ll notice (as long as it’s not overused) that your eye skips over “said.” You make a mental note of who said what, but you’re not focused on a murmur or a shout. You’re not wondering why the character quipped or questioned. The focus remains on the words the character uses, and that is all.
So, here’s my advice. Don’t be afraid of “said.” Using it doesn’t make you a bad or amateurish writer. In fact, using it correctly can really clean up your dialogue. Used judiciously, “said” can become a great friend and prevent confusion or reader whiplash.
“Said,” you can come out of the penalty box now. Just play nicely.
Thanks for reading,