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Why You Should Use "Said" (& Other Dialogue Tips)


In elementary school, I had a teacher who put up a chart in the room about verbs to use in dialogue (also known as dialogue tags). The chart’s title was “Verbs to Use Instead of Said.”


She claimed that using the word “said” was too simple and that you could paint a clearer picture of how a character in a story was speaking if you used more colorful verbs. These alternatives to “said” included words that make sense (like cried, exclaimed, and shouted) to the borderline ridiculous (uttered, vocalized, observed) to verbs that just don’t compute (chortled, blurted, sobbed).


If I remember correctly, we had to do an assignment where we wrote a conversation without using the word “said.” We thought we were being super innovative in doing so, but really, we were creating lousy writing.


Using colorful synonyms for “said” doesn’t make your writing more interesting, creative, or engaging. Often, these words distract readers from judging what’s happening in the story for themselves.


Most of the time, “said” is all you need to make the picture clear.





Letting the Details Do the Work


Here’s the thing about creative dialogue tags. Most of the time, they’re redundant, especially if the writer is gifted in their selection of words and details.


Check out the interaction below for an example of what I’m talking about:


Amanda stood in front of the window, looking out into the yard. She knew Tony was sitting on the couch; she could hear him breathing and awkwardly tapping on his knees.


“I said I was sorry,” Tony cried. “When are you going to let this go?”


“You think I’m going to just let it go?” Amanda rebuked. “Not going to happen. You blew it this time.”


“It was a mistake!” Tony insisted.


“Yeah,” Amanda sneered. “A mistake you’ve made like ten times.”


In all of these cases, the emotional attitude of the dialogue tags is already conveyed in the situation that’s been set up. The fact that Amanda is ignoring Tony already demonstrates that this conversation will be tense. His actions also indicate that he’s anxious and frustrated about whatever is happening.


Writers talk a lot about “showing, not telling,” but it isn’t the hard and fast rule your English teacher in high school told you it was. A certain amount of telling is necessary. For example, you have to be able to get characters from point A to point B, and a detailed description of how they got there is not needed most of the time.


In most cases, it’s preferred. We don’t need a detailed description of your character driving to his grandma’s house—it’s better to just cut directly to the part where he walks in the front door and immediately starts sizing up the kitchen to see where her secret stash of chocolate might be.


You might think that creative dialogue tags are a way to “show,” but they frequently deprive readers of their ability to use their own judgment about the conversation and what’s going on in the characters’ heads.


How Many People Are in This Conversation?


Another thing to note is that even though “said” gets the job done more often than not, there are cases where dialogue tags aren’t even needed. If you’re writing a scene with more than two characters talking, you need to have some way to distinguish who is speaking.


But if only two people are speaking, it’s possible to forgo dialogue tags provided that readers can still follow what’s happening.


Check out this revision of the example we looked at above.


Amanda stood in front of the window, looking out into the yard. She knew Tony was sitting on the couch; she could hear him breathing and awkwardly tapping on his knees.


“I said I was sorry,” Tony said. “When are you going to let this go?”


“You think I’m going to just let it go? Not going to happen. You blew it this time.”


“It was a mistake!”


“Yeah. A mistake you’ve made like ten times.”


This dialogue is easy to follow, and with no tags included, we get a sense of the pacing of the speech. Compare it to the above version, where the use of dialogue tags slows down what is being said. In this revision, it reads as a quick back-and-forth between two people having a conflict.


Before you even include dialogue tags, assess who is in the scene and the effect that including this information will have on how the reader experiences the interaction.





Not All Verbs Are Dialogue Tags (Seriously.)


I want everyone to listen very carefully to what I’m about to say.


Just because it’s a verb doesn’t mean you can use it as a dialogue tag.


Here’s a good rule: when you use dialogue tags other than “said,” they should always be verbs that indicate a manner of speaking.


Taking a verb that indicates a form of expression and making it into a dialogue tag doesn’t work.


Check out these laughable yet very realistic examples . . .


“You never listen to me,” she glowered. (This is a facial expression, not a way to speak.)


“That outfit looks ridiculous,” he chuckled. (You can’t chuckle and laugh at the same time.)


“You look so beautiful,” he quivered. (Ummm . . . what??)


“You’re one to talk,” she smirked. (Again, this is a facial expression).


Feel free to have your characters yell, shout, exclaim, instruct, command, explain, reply, answer, and agree. But if it’s not a verb that indicates a spoken utterance, cut it.


Final Thought


Dialogue tags other than “said” usually don’t help readers understand your story better—they hinder it. Focus instead of setting up the scene so that the emotional tone between the characters is evident. If you do this well, it will be immediately apparent how the characters feel, with no need for further setup in the dialogue.





But before you write any scenes, you have to have a story . . . and if you’re looking for inspiration, my Ultimate Writing Project Workbook can help.


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Plus . . . it’s FREE. AND you get a bonus one-on-one consultation with me to discuss any questions you have and share your ideas.


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