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.

Said.

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.

Huh.

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!

One thought on “Words with Ino #4 – Dialogue Tags, Part 2 (The Said Quandary)”

  1. Well done. Though I’ve been in the ‘said’ camp for ages since its almost invisible to readers, this here article breaks it down for those who would deny.

    Great Job,
    The Juggernaut

    Liked by 1 person

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