Said versus dialogue tags

Dialogue tags let your reader know who is speaking; they are a way of giving clarity to your dialogue, especially when you have several characters talking within a scene.  
The tags are not essential in every line of speech – especially when you have only a couple of characters talking, but you can use them occasionally just to remind your reader who is speaking.

The argument of said versus other dialogue tags has rumbled on for eons.  The one thing I have found with fiction writing is that some things are good in moderation, and constructing fiction is always subjective, so it is entirely up to the writer what he or she wants to use. 


The most overused tag is ‘said’.  You might think there is good reason for that, after all, we’re taught this in English classes from an early age.  Its use, however, can sometimes grate on the nerves if you have nothing else in terms of dialogue tags to give to the reader. Despite many teachers and editors advising to do away with too many dialogue tags, they do actually have their uses, in moderation.  To explain why, here’s a typical example of a scene with dialogue:

‘So you’re coming to the barbecue tonight...’ she said, facing him.
‘Hopefully,’ he said.
She nodded. ‘We’re going about six.’
He smiled.  ‘Great, I’ll be there between six and half past.’
‘Look forward to it,’ she said.
‘I’ll bring a few bottles of wine,’ he said.
‘Great,’ she said.

He said, she said...pages and pages of this kind of writing can be such hard work to read and a little boring.  The use of ‘said’ is very useful, and it does have its place, but the drawback it is that it is also limited in range.  Said says nothing about how the character his speaking, not unless you litter each line with description.

Use of dialogue tags are useful, but you should limit their use and how you use them - they should serve only to break up the catatonic-inducing amount of ‘said’ that could creep into your dialogue.  The odd tag here and there can show how the character is talking.  How do you infer fear, sensuality, anger or any other emotion, or indeed the tone of the words, without actually smacking the reader over the head with lots of ‘telling’?

‘Said’ tells us, but it doesn’t show us.

The argument here is that descriptive tags are not necessary because it will be obvious how the characters are talking.  That is true with some of them, but are some of them really that obvious?  Take a look at this typical example:

'I don’t love you,' she said.

If you don’t tell the reader how she is saying it, they will not understand the nuance of the emotion you wish to convey, particularly in an important scene.  You can put a snippet of description prior to the dialogue, like this:

Her face darkened, creased. ‘I don’t love you.’

That gives the reader more to work with - they will see she is unhappy because of the creased, darkened face.  What they won’t hear is the tone of her voice.

Her face darkened and creased as she spat, ‘I don’t love you.’

There is clear a descriptive path, and the tone of the voice supports the emotional punch of the dialogue because of the spitting of her words.  In this sense, dialogue isn’t always obvious, not unless you inform your reader the tone of voice your character is using.

Where possible, show your character’s actions prior to dialogue, as this will cut down the need for overloading the dialogue with ‘said’ tags, like this:

He placed his arm around her and whispered, ‘You look beautiful.’

Now the reader has something to work with.  We know the whispered tone invites sensuality.  You could, of course, do away with tags altogether:

He placed his arm around her and dropped his voice to a whisper.  ‘You look beautiful.’

Again, to reiterate, some tags have their uses if used correctly and in moderation – like ‘whispered’ above, to break the monotony of ‘said’.  As shown, there are several ways to inform the reader of the tone – which one you use is up to you.

There are some tags that are considered dubious for direct dialogue, like: bawled, screeched, exclaimed, shouted, whimpered, enquired, demanded, queried, snapped, thundered etc.

As a rule of thumb, if you are unsure, just listen to the sound these words actually make.  Most of us can’t thunder, so this would be a really overly descriptive and unnecessary tag, but on the other hand we can ‘bawl’.  We can ‘descriptively’ snap at someone, but we can’t use it as a dialogue tag because we can’t replicate a snapping sound with our voices in normal dialogue.  We can shout because we can raise our voices, but our voices can’t ‘demand’.  Neither can our voices ‘exclaim’, but our voices can ‘whimper’.

The use of a couple of differential tags can highlight to the reader the changing tone of the scene.  As a writer it is up to you how and when you use them, or if you use them at all.  Again, it is about listening to the sound of words, understanding the tone, and seeing if it works.

If you find you have a verb which describes an expression – sneer, frown, grin etc - don't force the verb into becoming a dialogue tag, for instance: he grinned.

Instead, the expression is the action and should be placed before the dialogue:  He grinned.  ‘I will take over the world.

Using adverbs

As a writer you should look to eliminate all adverbs in dialogue.  They make the writing clunky and your story would not get a second glance from an editor.

‘I want to get out!’ she said desperately.
‘I will save you,’ he said coolly.

The way to avoid adverbs is to drop the action/description before the dialogue.  It is also a good way of cutting down on the inordinate amounts of ‘said’.

She became desperate. ‘I want to get out!’
His voice was cool.  ‘I will save you.’

There are no right and wrongs in creative fiction, only the technical elements that can help you improve. Despite the ‘said’ tag rule, pick up any novel and I guarantee it will contain tags other than said.

Think about it this way, if we kept rigidly to these ‘thou shalt use nothing but said’ rules, how would you write your novel or story without overloading it with exposition (telling and no showing) and it being repetitively boring?  Well, it’s harder than you think.

Next week:  Description and why it's important


  1. I found this post really useful. I must admit I think it's about balance and style for me. You can use said to distinguish then drop them altogether until the next block of dialogue.

    Using approaching action leading into the dialogue is something I do often and always feel that's cheating somehow, but I feel more confident about it now thanks to this post.

    I think you are right, mix it up so it never becomes boring and kill those adverbs while you're at it. I think we need to remember never to be too concious of it though. I'm no great shakes with dialogue but feel the more I leave it to an organic style the better it reads. If it needs 'said' then use 'said', if needs another tag use it and if it needs prior action use that too.

    Another great post that gives us a lot to think about.


  2. I was referred to this post from a friend. Good advice.


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