Words with Ino #4 – Dialogue Tags, Part 2 (The Said Quandary)

Wew. Moar words. Let’s do it.

So! Way back when, I labeled #1 as being dialogue tags, part 1. At long last, let’s get around to part 2.


Okay, so, fair warning. This is probably one of the most hotly contested topics I’ve seen online and in the writing community, and people definitely get passionate about it. So, full disclaimer here, all I can do is state my own opinion on it, and there’s no reason you can’t go the other route and still be quite successful in your writing.

What the fuck are you talking about, Ino? Yes, I can already hear you guys back there. So, in short, what we’re looking at is the decision of what verb you should use in your dialogue tag.

In general, there are two basic schools of thought that I’ve seen. The first is to use ‘said’.

“That’s stupid,” Alex said.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey said.

For this case, ‘said’ will be used primarily as the dialogue tag.

Now, I’ll dive in a little more in a moment, but in short, the second school of thought goes that said should be rarely used, and other dialogue tags should be favored and used in variety.

“That’s stupid,” Alex exclaimed.

“No, you’re stupid,” Casey retorted.

Okay. So, I’ll come right out and say it. With those two as the main ‘options’, I’m here today to urge you to use ‘said’ as your primary go-to.

I’ll be honest. I didn’t always feel this way. I think that a lot of the controversy and conflict comes from a few points – I know that when I was younger and trying my hand at writing things, it was very much a case of “said isn’t descriptive, and writing should be descriptive, right? And wouldn’t using said all the time be repetitive?

To top it off, I had a good vocabulary, damn it. I read a lot of books to learn all the words that I knew, and I wanted to use them. So I did. I used everything under the sun, and I felt pretty strongly about the notion that people who advocated for ‘said’ were just oversimplifying fiction.

And then….something changed. Honestly, at a certain point, when I was reading through conversations and posts at places, and seeing people talking about how said is good, I got curious. I thought, there’s no way this is right. So I went and I found my favorite book by my favorite author, and I flipped it open. I’d prove all of them wrong.


Somehow, despite this word being apparently incredibly repetitive and annoying (according to internet experts everywhere), I’d never once noticed it being abused in rapid-fire use throughout my favorite author’s works.

I checked another book. And another. And each time I found the same thing – they were using said almost exclusively. I’d just never noticed.

Once I realized this, once I started paying attention to it, my viewpoint started shifting. It wasn’t an instantaneous thing – it took months of writing and critique, slowly changing my opinions. But in the end, there was a noticeable trend.

Things for you all to look forward to.

When I read a piece someone gave to me to critique and it made a point of using varied and always-changing dialogue tags, I started finding it stood out to me. A lot. It didn’t flow naturally, and it felt choppier – all things you want to avoid as a writer.

Before I realized it, I was in camp ‘said’ – a place I never intended on being. And I was opinionated about it.

Enough, Ino, you say. Get to the point.

The idea behind using said as a dialogue tag, then, is that it’s a ‘nothing word’. When you use said, it has a way of dropping out of sight altogether. It’s repetitive, sure – if the reader is actually paying attention every time it’s used.

But they’re not – or they shouldn’t be. The dialogue tag is only there to inform them of who’s speaking, after all. So when you primarily use said, the reader’s eye will more often than not just skim over it, wiping it away entirely. This is a good thing.

There are of course some exceptions. I’ll start by addressing one of the counter-arguments – that the dialogue tag can be used to inform the reader of how the character is speaking, moreso than just who.

Yes. That’s true.

My counter to that, then, is that if written properly, the rest of the information should already be contained in the context of the sentence and how the character is moving/speaking. Give your readers some credit. If the scene is structured well and they’ve got a good mental image of what’s going on, they really don’t need you to be spelling everything out for them.

Like I said, there are exceptions, naturally. Most authors have a list of words that they’re at least comfortable with tossing in. I use muttered, murmured, whispered, hissed, and snapped, each in turn. But, good rule of thumb, there should be 5-6 uses of ‘said’ for every instance of these words.

To go along with both that and the point before – if you’re worried about ‘said’ becoming repetitive, or you’re trying to include more context in the scene, drop a dialogue tag entirely!

Alex folded his arms across his chest, glaring down at Casey. “That’s stupid.”

A lot of writing is about establishing ‘ownership’ – ownership of dialogue, ownership of paragraphs. You’re conveying to the reader which character is the one taking the actions. If you pair up dialogue with an action or descriptor of the character who has ‘ownership’, then you can drop the dialogue tag entirely. The reader already knows it’s them, after all! And now you don’t need a fancy dialogue tag to establish that Alex is annoyed.

You can also eliminate the need for dialogue tags entirely if you have rapid-fire back and forth between a limited cast!

Now, the ideal situation, then, is to create a scenario where you have a mixture of A) Dialogue tagged with ‘said’, B) Tags dropped where they’re totally unnecessary, and C) Lines ‘tagged’ using character actions instead of dialogue tags at all. Whenever possible, it is ideal to avoid the topic as much as possible!

Something like that.

Why does all of this matter, you ask?

Well, besides for the comments I’ve put above about how it’s damaging to how the story flows, I would say that it’s important to keep in mind that readers can become desensitized very quickly. If you go around using strong vocal verbs for every last dialogue tag, then it’s going to be harder to create an impactful line.

Essentially, you’ve raised the ‘floor’ on your dialogue. Every line is ‘special’ – so none of them are.

When you actually have a big moment, then, when a character is behaving in an extraordinary manner, it’s much more difficult to convey that. The reader is already used to each of those tags being varied and different, and they’re glossing over it. So you lose that extra little oomph.

Again, I know this one’s liable to rustle some jimmies. It’s a hotly debated topic, and I know that everyone’s got their own way of doing it.

Just remember that my way is the right way.

/s/! It was /s, damn it!

[Review] Legends of the Exiles – Jesse Teller

The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

Helena seeks a love as bold as she, yet finds the men of her village lacking.

Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.

Torn apart by abuse and grief, Ellen is a brilliant woman who must focus her intellect on finding reasons to persevere.

Rachel, a brash girl of noble heritage, dares all men to challenge her and longs for one who will.

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

Note – In case the excerpt didn’t state it clearly enough, Legends of the Exiles is structured as four novellas set in the same region and featuring overlapping casts. Just so that you guys understand the structure of this book 🙂

Important – Please read. This book is 18+. The review you are about to read is 18+. The content ranges from consensual sex scenes to rape scenes involving children. If you are not 18, this is your cue to close the review. If you are over 18, please take that warning into consideration and make your decision to proceed or walk away accordingly.

Full disclosure – I received an advance review copy of this ebook for free, as part of the TBRindr program, in exchange for an honest review.

All….right. So. I’m going to skip the usual pleasantries that I would put here. Openly stated from the beginning, I didn’t enjoy this book as much as I hoped, and given the very low rating which I gave it, I’m going to do my best to cover the why in a succinct fashion. My intent with this review isn’t to be mean. I think that there’s a lot of potential here, but I felt that the book was mishandled on a few levels that went beyond “I didn’t enjoy it” and really made it actively grate on me.

This review is notably longer than some I’ve done in the past.  Part of that is because with four separate stories and four separate casts, there are a lot of things for me to cover.  Part of it is that I want to be thorough, given the low rating.  I apologize for the wall of text ,and I promise to try not and dwell on minor points needlessly.

As I prefer to do, I’m going to list the central issues that I had with this novel, in loose order from least important to most important. Because of the low rating, I feel obligated to fully substantiate my reasoning, and thus I will include excerpts from the text as needed to demonstrate what I mean.

The Writing

The novel itself was very strong from a typographical perspective. There were very few typos and such to speak of, and it was grammatically near flawless. My issue with it is a little more…particular.

At many points in the text, the language is extremely repetitive, almost hypnotically so. As strange as it sounds, more than anything it often reminded me of bible verses in that it has that rhythmic quality.

Now, see, the issue here for me comes in that the voice of the writing changes often enough that I’m never quite sure if this is an intentional, stylistic choice – or just ‘mistakes’ on the part of the author. It was like the uncanny valley of style. A character would speak formally one sentence, and then turn around and use vernacular the next, which threw all my wonderings about “is this an intentional style choice” to the wind. That sort of thing.

In my opinion, I do feel that this style of writing made the characters and text feel distant and clumsy, when this is supposed to be a character-driven piece. I’m not sure those two things coexist nicely. It didn’t work for me.

>She looked down and slowly turned. She stepped as quietly as she could until she made it to the wall. She eyed the door. She needed to be there when it opened next, needed to slip away when her chance arrived. But she saw a staircase going up not ten feet to her right. She knew where that led. She could not pass up the chance.

Some of what I’m talking about here.

Immersion and Inconsistencies

This section is really more about immersion. It’s still what I’d consider a minor concern, but it was definitely a factor for me. At several points throughout the book, there were inconsistencies within the world, bordering on plot holes, which really pulled me out of things. Take one example – one of the characters, Ellen, creating her own language and learning how to write/make materials to write with.

Now, I’ll first ask how a culture that has wine and beer and social organization and all sorts of artisan crafts managed to reach that level of civilization without creating written language or even paint. I found that incredibly dubious – more so if a lonely outcast girl was able to complete this act in her spare time. But going further even within that one case, there are passages like –

>She had nothing to write it all down on. She tried to use paint, but the paint the village used was too thin and did not show well. She re(con)figured the recipe, thickened it up and made it easier to use. She dried it to a small, tacky brick, and when she dragged it across rock, it wrote. She was not happy with it yet, so kept working. The makeup of the paint made it impossible to wash off, and she needed to be able to correct her mistakes.

Ellen needed a paint that was less permanent. Cool. That makes sense. But then it’s followed later in the story by-

>She became obsessed. She worked every day it didn’t rain. The paints she had changed, and with the introduction of new oils and a bit of sand, had crafted a paint stick that would not wash off.

Making the character reinvent something they already invented in the first few chapters really pulls you out of the story. It comes off as a bit desperate to establish that the character is smart. Another time the text goes to great length to establish that the 5-year-old girl leading the story is naked, without it ever coming up again (picturing her naked through all the important conversations that follow was…interesting). One character’s name varies between Rachel and Rachela paragraph by paragraph.  This might be edited out by the time the final version is published. Just a few examples, but that’s the sort of thing I’m talking about.

Mismatched Expectations

I really like the cover of this book. I think the design of it is eye-catching and professional. Likewise, I think that the blurb for the back of the book provides a nice flavor for what the book might hold, and it’s got a decent hook to it.

The issue that I ran into, then, was that the book that the blurb and cover sold me on wasn’t the same book I encountered within the pages.

That’s a pretty hefty accusation, and I’m not meaning to be offhand about this, so let me be explain a little more. In reading the blurb –

The isolated barbarians of Neather have deep ancestry and strict traditions. Four resilient women defy tribal customs as they fight to overcome their own tragedies. Abuse. Addiction. Assault. Grief. What struggles can they endure to defend their hopes and their hearts?

In this set of four interwoven novellas, award-winning author Jesse Teller challenges assumptions and showcases the strength of feminine resolve.

So, in short, what I get from this is that it’s going to be about four women overcoming societal challenges facing them and doing so as strong, realistic female figures. As a female fantasy author, I’m all for that. I think that’s a laudable goal.

What I found, though, was that the books, in my mental image as I read them, were each centered specifically about the women’s relationships with men and sex. Particularly the first book, which in short order turns into essentially a fantasy romance novel, down to the tee. She meets boy, she hates boy. Then she likes boy. Then she gets told she can’t have boy, because he’s promised to someone else in an arranged marriage.

All of this is punctuated with a lot of pretty explicit imagery and more than a few sex scenes – none of which is noted anywhere on the Amazon/goodreads page, in the book itself, or in the message that was sent to me requesting a review. It was entirely a surprise.

>She felt his mouth, large and desperate, take in her tongue, beckon it in, and his tongue filled her mouth. His arms wrapped around her, warm and drenched in blood, his body trembling as he held her gently, lovingly. He lifted her to his lap and wrapped his hands under her. She entangled her legs around him and felt herself moisten. She suddenly needed him. She had to have him in her and around her, needed to stare up at him as he entered her. She felt his erection, terrifyingly big, raging under her, and she shoved away her fear. She ran her fingers through his wet hair, and she pulled back from him. She needed to see him, needed to remind herself who she had around her. She looked into his green eyes and felt herself go wet.

With this novella presented as the opening act it sets the tone for the whole novel – and given the importance given to the relationship versus any sort of story or character development, it reads as a romance/smut novel. And that’s fine – I think that there’s nothing wrong with that, except for I didn’t sign up for a straight-up romance novel when I opened the book. My expectations as a reader were different from what was provided, which left me feeling irritated and disappointed.

The other novellas go down in much the same vein – book 2 features Jocelyn, who has a destiny. “Jocelyn fears her strange visions and sacrifices a life with the man she loves for the one her destiny demands.” I was hopeful for this. There’s a lot of potential there, about being urged to take charge in a world that doesn’t really respect your right to do so. About facing danger and gaining the bravery to do so.

Turns out that her destiny is to birth the chosen one, and the book is about her picking who to sleep with to be the father to produce said chosen one. Of course, she’s in love with someone else, so it’s like a love triangle with Fate.

Book 3 centers on a girl overcoming the horror and shock of sexual assault. I’ll discuss that more later.

Book 4 talks about Rachel, wilder than the others, who comes to the city and falls in love before herself being put into an arranged marriage she doesn’t want.

With the notable exception of book 3, each of these are fairly standard cookie cutter romance premises (that is not in and of itself a bad thing, just perhaps for the context of this book).  In all of them, I was disappointed that the only way “femine resolve” was explored was through their vaginas (and the dicks being put in them/they wanted to have put in them).  There are so many other topics that could have been explored, even within the single-line summaries listed above.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s Teller’s story to tell how he wants.  But given the way it was billed, I expected something a little different, and at a certain point I’d be lying if I didn’t say it was a little insulting that this was the only aspect of feminine resolve that was seriously broached.

“Strong and Proud”

Strong female characters were promised in the blurb – to go back to the ‘audience expectations’ bit I mentioned above. The central theme of the book as a whole, all four novellas laced together, was that of feminine resolve and challenging assumptions.

For me, this book did an awful lot of telling and not much showing. We heard a lot about how the characters were strong. Side characters would refer to the female lead as “my proud daughter” or reassure them that “it was obvious they didn’t really need help.”

Telling us your character is strong is not the same as your character being strong.

Frankly, what I did see of the female characters wasn’t all that inspiring. I hate to say that, and I’m really not trying to be mean, but that’s just how it came across.

Helena opened the novella by punching a prospective (if too-rough) lover in the nose and telling him to try again. She followed it up later with a screaming, overdramatic hissy fit in front of her entire clan because her lover decided to accept the arranged marriage – to the benefit of their entire clan – culminating into her bursting into tears and being carried home.  It was neither mature nor inspiring.

Jocelyn….didn’t seem to do much, really, except have an affair to cheat fate. I guess that’s brave? She did beat the shit out of Rachel with a broom handle, and that was probably the high point of the book for me, so that’s something.

And Rachel mostly went around grabbing dicks (yes) and attacking random men for being men and shrieking that she’s a fighter, she’s a warrior to anyone who would listen.  With her, I fully expected her story to play out as “Look, she wanted to be strong, and so she went too far.  Real strength isn’t crazy overt, it has subtlety” and she would mellow and stop screeching her warrior-ness at everyone as she matured and learned the truth.

She did not.

>“Let me down! I am a fighter!” She screamed

>“You will not order me around, Beastscowl,” she snapped. “I am a warrior.”

>“Where are you going?” she heard a boy ask. She had been lying in the same room as him, and she was furious about it. She stalked to his bed and reached out fast. She slapped a hand over his mouth as she gripped his man parts. She squeezed.

The impression that I got, more often than not, was that “strong, proud female characters” were by and large presented as the brash, aggressive, headstrong type. That’s one sort of female character. In my opinion, it’s an immature one, and it’s more of a starting place than an end goal.

Too often it seemed to be thrust in our face as “look, she’s a strong independent woman, she ain’t got time for no man.”

I had been hoping for something more substantial and complex to sink my teeth into than that.

The Rest of My Issue – Seriously, I meant it when I said 18+

So, my troubles really started with Book 3, Dead Girl.  It talks about a 12-year-old who meets a man at a festival of sorts, gets to chatting, gets to kissing, and then leads him off into the woods to somewhere she knows they can have privacy.  They have sex, he wanders off the next morning, she gets pregnant,  her family casts her out, and she ‘dies’ during childbirth (she’s rescued and whisked away to heal).  The remainder of the book is her finding ways to cope with the trauma of the rape.


When I read this book for the first time, honestly, I missed the single line of text that established her as 12.  And for the remainder of this novella, every time she thinks about how she shouldn’t blame herself, she’s not at fault, part of me sighed – because she had a very active role in the events leading up to the sex, and she was (for the foreplay) a very willing participant.  If she was of age, I would not have called it rape – and so, in thinking her of-age, it made me irritated.

But she wasn’t of-age. She was 12.

12-year-olds cannot consent, of course.  It is not their fault, they are not to blame, and it is rape.  With that new knowledge, I cursed my inattention, went back to the start with the new context, and began again.

>“Do you want to go back to the feast or stay here with me?” Ghean asked. She looked at the bright lights between the houses and back at him, just a shape in the dark. She did not want to leave. She wanted to start over with the kiss. She stepped closer, and he smiled, teeth gleaming bright in the moonlight.

>Ellen could hear the man or woman coming around the corner, and she turned and ran. She ran for the forest, for the trees. She slipped into the cover of darkness with her Ghean, and led him to a rock she knew about. She would sit with him there until the feast was over. She would let him touch her there.

Honestly, I was horrified.  Giving a 12-year-old that much agency over the situation, even false agency, seemed really dangerous to me.  It was easy for me to read that chapter as her being ‘into it’ – and it was likewise easy for me to see someone seeing that and nodding along, if they had those horrible tendencies.  It would be easy to make that excuse.

To add to that, I felt that the scenes were needlessly graphic.  I really don’t want to read about a grown man ‘entering’ a 12 year old, thrusting, etc.  I didn’t really want to read about them making out and groping and getting in the mood, either.  That was just a step down in terms of horrifying.  It could have been executed differently for the same impact without the feeling of “this is borderline child porn”.

Full disclosure – this was something I’d contacted the author about, prior to writing the review, to share my feelings on it.  I can see the arguments presented in its defense – that these things happen, that it’s important to be blunt and not sugarcoat it.  I can understand that sentiment, even if I still disagree on the execution of these scenes and where that hard-to-spot line falls.

And then I read book 4.

>Rachel stared with hungry eyes at the boy harvesting his arrows and waving to the crowd.
She had to have him.
She shoved her way from the grandstand and down to the walkway where he had to pass. Her twelve-year-old body was reacting perfectly to her approaching womanhood. Her breasts were small but tight, her hips tantalizing. Her neck was long, her lips full. Her brown hair caught flame in the sunlight, and the boys all lamented her beauty as none of them could tame her. She was quickly becoming the prettiest girl she knew. This was just a fact, and if she wanted this boy, she could have him.

Sexualizing a 12 year old is not okay. It’s just not.

What was the reason here?  What was the message?  It looks for all the world like a hypersexualized child, for no better reason than emphasizing how free-spirited or out of control they were.

In case you were curious, that scene progresses to her approaching said boy and enticing him back to her room to fuck.  He’s 15.  He asks her her age – like a reasonable young adult – and she dodges the question because it might put him off having sex with her.  When your characters are drawing the line places you are not, stop and reconsider

The impending sex is stopped when her caretakers interrupt their fun in her room – and threaten to sodomize the boy for being there.  She, on the other hand, is let off scot-free. Because of course she was

If the point was to have a character who thinks way too much of themselves – that’s fine. You can very easily have a girl think of herself as pretty, and as desirable, without making the text overtly sexual. I really don’t know what to say except that I was appalled to see it play out this way here, without even the veil of a message to hide behind.

I find it disappointing each and every time I write a negative review.  This time is no different.

I think that if the book were framed a little differently, and expectations managed closer to what is presented, I wouldn’t have had nearly the issues that I did with this novel, children aside.  I think that it was an ambitious attempt, and there were things it did well – the idea of having interlaced casts and sporadic timelines is intriguing, and I actually got a lot more out of the book when I went back to reread sections.

In the end, though, I found it deeply flawed and deeply unsettling.

Final rating: 1/5