Writing Tip: Overusing “Said” as a Dialogue Tag

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As I continue my quest in self-publishing, I read so much advice about “the rules” of writing. A common piece of knowledge dispensed about penning dialogue is to only use “said” as the primary dialogue tag.

What’s a dialogue tag?

A dialogue tag is a clause of two words or more which attributes speech to a particular speaker. “Hello,” John said. Hello is the dialogue. John said is the dialogue tag. The tag makes clear that John is doing the speaking, rather than Mary or Chris or the dining room table.via EditTorrent

The popular theory behind employing “said” as your weapon of choice is that it supposedly disappears as a reader is scanning the text, and through some psychological magic they treat it like punctuation.

I’m here to tell you that’s not (always) true.

I’ll agree that you shouldn’t immediately dive for a thesaurus when you step in a big chunk of dialogue. Characters “shouting”, “imploring”, “exclaiming” and “barking” are likely to pull someone out the conversation you’re creating, and should be used extremely judiciously for dramatic effect. However, this idea that “said” (and his friend “asked”) can be used at all times going unnoticed is patently false. Unlike ninjas, these words are not invisible.

I recently sent out a draft for review, and part of the feedback I got was to fix the repetitive use of “said” in my dialogue. I was surprised since I had been trying to adopt one of “the rules” thinking it would improve my work, but it seemed to have the opposite effect. Like any form of repetition, the overuse of “said” can become tiresome for the reader.

“Hey,” Mary said as she walked in the door.

“Have another bad day at work?” Robert asked.

“Yeah,” Mary replied, “my boss is really killing me with all this overtime.”

“I hear you,” said Robert. “This month has been crazy for me too.”

“We both need new jobs,” said Mary as she sat down.

The three instances of “said” along with the “ask/reply” make this conversation between Bob and Mary feel stiff, and the tags feel repetitive.

So what’s the solution? I’ve been striving to eliminate dialogue tags as much as possible from my writing altogether, and only use them as a guide to establish the characters placement in the conversation.

“Hey,” Mary said as she walked in the door.

“Have another bad day at work?” Robert watched as she dropped her bag to the floor.

“Yeah,” she sighed as she hung her coat, “my boss is really killing me with all this overtime.”

“I hear you,” he had already managed to grab two beers from the back of the fridge. “This month has been crazy for me too.”

“We both need new jobs,” she said, collapsing on the couch.

Feels better, right? I eliminated multiple dialogue tags and added more visual action to the scene. This made the conversation flow more naturally while eliminating repetition, although it doesn’t solve Mary or Bob’s career problems. With some additional tweaking I could probably eliminate that last “said” as well.

Hopefully this will provide some insight on stylistic use of “said” and other dialogue tags in your writing. The key is really to avoid that feeling of repetition or stiff, artificial interaction. I also find reading your dialogue out loud can do wonders to spot potential issues.

Do you live by the “he said/she said” rule of dialogue tags in your writing? Let me know down in the comments.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Tip: Overusing “Said” as a Dialogue Tag

  1. trulyunplugged says:

    Wow, this is such a great post! I hadn’t given the matter much thought until your prompting….and, I agree–the second offering is much more engaging! It is so generous of you to share your knowledge…I am grateful for the opportunity to “follow” you. I’m sure to learn a great deal. Thanks for sharing. 🙂

    Like

  2. Meagan Walker says:

    I love this! Very helpful in my own writing. I have been known to both use “said” too much as well as using bigger verbs that can be distracting. It was a difficult thing to balance in my book.

    Liked by 1 person

    • B.L. Daniels says:

      It’s definitely a delicate balance. It’s funny how the common wisdom is that “said” will disappear from a reader’s eyes, but I’ve gotten feedback from many beta readers who seem to notice it sticking out like a sore thumb if it shows up too much.

      Liked by 1 person

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