Tagging dialogue can be a lot of fun. It feels like you’re being creative, and it feels expressive and engaging. But, from what I have read and studied, a simple “said” will usually do the trick. It’s sad, huh? It seems to take the life out of our novel if we can’t conjure up all the unique verbs to express our character conversation. We can’t toil doubly over our witches brew of vocabulary words. Shucks!

Look at this way. If you use too many “non-said” tags, you will inevitably take away from your dialogue because the “new said replacement” will eventually draw away the reader’s attention — and that is certainly not what we want. Our dialogue will be overshadowed by a “he barked” or “she retorted” and a “he whined.” Said says it all — most of the time. But here’s the good part. If you use said regularly, then when you put in a whined or complained or uttered or mumbled or yelled or hollered or managed or thought aloud, then the reader will be more intrigued and drawn into the conversation. And if you’re using a question, or course you use “asked” instead of “said.” Nuf’ said. Here are some examples.

“Did ya’ get everything you wanted?” she interrogated.
“Not quite,” he uttered.
“So you went all that way for nothing?” she maintained.
“If only I could have done the thing that Joni wanted, I would have been satisfied,” he complained.
“Then maybe next you’ll listen to me,” she retorted.
“I did listen to you, but I guess it would have helped if I had done what you said,” he realized.
“The bruises on your face say it all,” she mocked.
“The pain and the heartbreak are much worse,” he sighed.
“Serves you right to leave a girl like me for a tramp like her,” she taunted.

See how the story is covered in the soot of colorful verbs. You stop because you have to read and interpret the new verb every time rather than allowing your mind to “skip” over the expected “said” tag. If you have a knack for using vibrant words, save it for your prose where people will expect it, but a simple “said” always works along with an occasional “replied.” Look at the difference in this next scene.

“She finally quit fighting,” he said.
“Quit? There’s no way. Not her,” she said.
“As sure as tomorrow comes, she let it all go,” he said.
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” she said.
“You’ll see. The bruises are gone and even the late nights. She’s done,” he said.
“But fighting is all she’s ever known,” she said.
“Not anymore. It’s back to her day job. Back to the office. Boxing just isn’t for her,” he said.

Better? Perhaps. But now we need to tweak one more thing. When we know who’s talking, we don’t need so many tags. They all get in the way. So if we combine the “saids” with no tags, then we’ll have a much more fluent dialogue.

“Play with fire and you get burned,” he said.
“Hmph. I’d rather get burned than to never know what fire felt like,” she said.
“That’s naive at best. If someone tells you that it’s gonna hurt, then why go through it?”
“Maybe because it’s through the fire, that I come out refined.”
“Or maybe that you’re too hard-headed to actually learn from someone else’s abrasions.”

See how the first two tags just identify whose talking, and honestly the second “said” could be replaced with a “replied,” and it would be fine. But to label and tag every line is unneccessary. I’d suggest that a large majority of your tags be “said,” and the rest…well you can fill in the blanks.

Hope you can stop by tomorrow for the next post on dialogue!

5 thoughts on “HE SAID, SHE SAID

  1. nelle

    I prefer to use alternates, but avoid either most of the time, once the pattern of who converses establishes. Only when something beyond the utterance proves necessary to paint the scene do I invoke a clarifier, or when a third person enters the conversation. A steady stream of saids or any thing with the dialogue turns me off.

    1. William Stadler Post author

      I agree. The steady stream can be difficult to cipher through except when there are multiple characters – in which case it’s important to know who’s saying what.

  2. sfbell09

    This was a good post. I am presently having this same internal debate. I am using mostly said tags, with a few more decorative ones thrown in when a special occasion arises. And I drop the tag if the speaker is identified and I think it will read cleanly.

    1. William Stadler Post author

      That certainly works. I have just read too many articles / blogs / books that say that said is the standard expectation from editors. So if we want our works to be published, we should give them what they want. But not only that, too many different tags can be distracting and soon they become watered down anyway if they are overused. Good point sfbell09.


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