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When It Comes to Dialogue Tags, Don’t Just Say “Said”

If yesterday’s article seemed to lean too far toward the anti-dialogue tags side of the creative writer debate, I apologize. Let me clear up my thoughts on the matter right here and now.

In my expert opinion, based on a bachelor’s degree in English literature (which is admittedly worthless), 32 years of being an avid reader (which is much more relevant), and 31 years of being a writer (arguably the most important aspect of these three qualifications)… Dialogue tags are useful.

When appropriately applied.

As I’ve said before about past topics, it’s almost always best to switch a story up as often as possible.

This doesn’t necessarily mean the plot, although that should be moving forward as well. It’s more a matter of keeping the text flowing by following suggestions like these:

  • Don’t drone on with exposition. Make sure to also include narration, dialogue, descriptions, etc., so that no single segment gets boring.

  • Don’t employ the same sentence and paragraph structures across the creative writing board. Make some short and others long; begin some with nouns, pronouns and articles, and others with verbs, adverbs, adjectives, conjunctions or prepositions; and show in some places while telling in others… including when it comes to dialogue and dialogue tags.

  • Don’t use the same word on repeat without good reason. Make sure to show off your deep-seated and wide-ranging descriptive abilities wherever it makes sense to do so.

More about that last one in a second.

That second is now officially up. So here’s the promised “more” you’ve been waiting with breathless anticipation for.

Don’t use the same dialogue tag on repeat.

Using any one prominent word too many times in a row is ill-advised unless you’re trying to make a point through repetition: in other words, if you’re trying to bring special attention to that word. Otherwise, you’re only drawing attention away from the story.

The most popular dialogue tag that creative writers repeat, of course, is “said.” He said. She said. It said. They said. Try switching it up with more evocative examples to build interest, such as the following list.

More about that last line in a second. Actually make it two. Possibly even three since there's something else we need to discuss first…

There is a segment of creative writers who don’t believe in using anything but “said” as a dialogue tag. Their big beef is that people try so hard not to use it that they end up employing really inaccurate or melodramatic words instead.

Fair enough. That does happen. And if such examples have scarred you for life, go ahead and stick with just “saying” instead of “evoking” or “stating,” “speaking” or “declaring,” “pronouncing” or “uttering.”

But in that case, try to avoid using dialogue tags in general a decent four out of five times that a character decides to speak. Perhaps even more so. Because, like it or not, your use of “said” is going to otherwise start standing out in rather unflattering ways.

I’m just sayin’.

Since that second or two or three (or 60) are now officially up, here’s that promised list of dialogue tags for everyone who does want to switch them up.

This is hardly an exhaustive list, mind you. There are plenty more out there. But it’s still a great place to start when you don’t want to put your readers into a said-induced coma…

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