Dialogue Tags and the Hidden Power of ‘said’:

Writers hate to repeat what’s been done before. This is particularly apparent when it comes to dialogue tags (those things that come after a line of dialogue and let you know who spoke):

“The bit after the dialogue is called a dialogue tag,” he explained.

What’s wrong with the above sentence? The answer is simple: the dialogue tag (‘he explained’) adds no value. It’s obvious that whoever’s speaking is explaining something, which makes it redundant to tell readers that things are getting explained (and as discussed before, redundancies are bad). You don’t need ‘explained’ – you just need ‘said.’

‘Explained’ isn’t the only dialogue tag that’s almost always redundant. Here are some others you should replace with ‘said’:

  • Argued
  • Yelled
  • Shouted
  • Added
  • Interrupted
  • Commented

“But how will my readers know my character is arguing if I don’t tell them?” you ask:

If readers need a dialogue tag to work out if the character is angry, you haven’t written good dialogue. Readers should be able to identify the character’s emotions purely from their words: your dialogue should be able to illustrate your characters’ charisma by itself. Using ‘said’ stops you using dialogue tags to convey emotion. This forces you to write better, more convincing dialogue.

Let’s talk about Adverbs:

While we’re discussing lazy writing habits, let’s talk about adverbs. Adverbs are annoying modifiers (often ending in ‘ly’) that need to crawl into a quiet corner and die a fast death. Don’t believe me? Take a look at some dialogue tags that use adverbs:

  • “I hate you!” he said angrily
  • “You’ll be fired within a week,” he said critically
  • “I’m devastated,” he said sadly

In every case, adverbs are as unnecessary to dialogue tags as an extra ear would be to a human. There’s no need for them – readers can work out if your character is angry, or critical, or sad just by the dialogue itself. If a character says “I hate you!”, you know they’re angry.

When it’s okay to NOT use said:

It’s never wrong to just use ‘said.’ But there are some situations when using other types of dialogue tags adds an extra dimension to your dialogue. For instance:

“I love you,” he lied.

This adds depth to the story that couldn’t be achieved by just using ‘said.’ Having said that, be careful when you use substitutes for said. My golden rule is that if the same meaning can be achieved with just ‘said’, just use ‘said.’

“But ‘said’ is so bland!” you enthuse:

That’s the point. ‘Said’ is invisible. While you might get sick of typing it hundreds of times, readers subconsciously ignore this one-syllable star. This means you can use it to give readers crucial information (i.e. who just spoke) in a painless way. By deflecting attention away from itself this wonderful wallflower keeps readers focussing on what counts: your dialogue.

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