“Said” Is Not the Only Dialogue Tag Available to Authors


Whether a writer chooses to use dialogue tags all the time or none of the time or some of the time is their own business. Every author has his or her preference, and I’m not going to be the one to argue you out of your inclination here.

Chances are I’d be wasting my time even if I tried.

Besides, no matter what either side of the debate wants to claim, dialogue tags aren’t an issue of right vs. wrong writing, or flat-out good vs. evil writing.

But I am going to take a firm stand on the issue of using the same dialogue tags on repeat. From a writing or editorial standpoint, it’s just not a great idea.

Unless you’re trying to make a point, repetition rarely is.

A lot of the time, writers – novice or otherwise – make this mistake accidentally. Busy composing or reviewing their manuscripts, they’re so intent on the billion other aspects they need to focus on that they just don’t notice they’ve used the same word too many times in a row.

In my case, I usually don’t do this with dialogue tags so much. But I can almost empathize on the issue since I’ve been known to use other words in my narratives over and over and over again to the point of repetitive ridiculousness.

Fortunately, there’s a simple way to correct this accidental writing. All writers really need is someone to point out that their manuscripts need an extra edit to ensure they look a bit more professional and polished than something like this:

“I don’t like Cassandra,” Sally said. “She’s one of the most self-focused people I’ve ever met.” “She does have a bad habit of making things all about her,” Jared said with a laugh. “But she’s hot, so I can tolerate it.” “You’re an idiot,” she said. “Like seriously.” “Guilty as charged,” he said with a grin. “In that case, you can deal with her,” Sally said. “I’m going to avoid her as much as I can.”

Now, if I was writing that bit of dialogue myself, I would eliminate at least one of those tags altogether. That fourth line in particular would be switched in a jiffy to:

He grinned. “Guilty as charged.”

I’d argue that elimination would make Sally and Jared’s back-and-forth banter stronger. But even if you’re a strictly pro-dialogue tag kind of guy or gal, you can still switch up the word “said” with some other choice options.

“I don’t like Cassandra,” Sally said. “She’s one of the most self-focused people I’ve ever met.” “She does have a bad habit of making things all about her,” Jared laughed. “But she’s hot, so I can tolerate it.” “You’re an idiot,” she stated. “Like seriously.” “Guilty as charged,” he agreed with a grin. “In that case, you can deal with her,” Sally declared. “I’m going to avoid her as much as I can.

As a reader, I’m now going to find myself focusing more on what Sally and Jared are conveying instead of the fact that they “said” something a total of five times in a row.

In other words, as a reader, I’m going to be more engaged.

But what if you’re not doing it on purpose? What if you think the word “said” is all a writer needs? What if you believe that nobody even notices the dialogue tags you put down – that they’re filler, so it’s a waste of time to be worrying about replacements for “said”?

As with the larger debate of dialogue tags vs. no dialogue tags, that’s your prerogative if you want to think that way. But in this specific case, you’re wrong.

Maybe it doesn’t bother you to see “said” on repeat. However, it does bother other people – a lot. For these readers, it’s a distraction: a hindrance in getting lost in the story.

For others, they might not consciously notice how they’re being “said” to death, but they’re also recognizing on some level how they could fall into that book or manuscript even deeper if there were only some stronger dialogue descriptions.

“‘No!’ she screamed.” is going to be more powerful than “‘No!’ she said.”

“‘Forget it,’ he mumbled.” is more evocative than “‘Forget it,’ he said.”

And “‘I love you,’ she simpered" automatically offers more details than “‘I love you,’ she said.”

If none of that convinces you not to use the same dialogue tag too many times in a row, consider these questions:

  • Would you start out every new chapter with the same word?

  • Would you begin each action scene with “He struck out”?

  • Would you end every declaration with an exclamation mark?

The answer should be a resounding no, since each new chapter or action scene or declaration needs to be handled differently depending on the events leading up to it and the ones it’s still setting up.

And the same goes with dialogue tags. Different lines call for different words.

It’s just Writing 101.

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