Long, long ago, in another century, some bored or desperate soul wrote a book of dialogue tags that could be used in preference to “said.” That writer is lost to well-deserved obscurity, but the term “said-bookism” remains to describe the labored alternatives some writers resort to for tagging dialogue.
A few said-book sorts of tags are justly famous for their unlikeliness. Among them:
“I really enjoyed the play,” Imelda smiled. ...as opposed to...
Imelda smiled. “I really enjoyed the play.”
Imelda can’t smile a speech. But she can say something, and she can smile, adding action to the speech.
“You can’t be serious,” Robert gaped.
Much like Imelda, Robert can’t gape his words. He can say them and then gape, but why should he? His incredulity is evident from his speech. To repeat it is to court Superfluous Redundancy.
Yes, “an abrupt, exclamatory utterance” can be defined as an ejaculation, but do yourself a favor; don’t go there. Don’t even look at the price of tickets.
Of course on widely spaced occasions, fictional characters might remark, comment, shout, shriek, whisper, rasp, hiss, mutter, or growl. For the most part, though, and unless there’s a solid reason to have them do otherwise, they just say stuff. Sometimes they ask stuff, and when they do, someone might reply. The word “said” is the best candidate for readers’ eyes to pass over it if it’s not repeated too often, so it’s a good way to tag dialogue while maintaining immersion. The occasional “told,” “asked,” and “replied” or “answered” are likewise nearly invisible when used with restraint.
To lay a bit of popular internet writing advice to rest, a said-bookism is not “…any word used in place of ‘said.’” “Said” has its own pitfalls and is not the only acceptable dialogue tag. I have nailed my colors to the mast on this one, and will take as many boarders as possible down with me.
“Said”—to get up in the grille of a similar bit of oft-repeated guidance—is not really an invisible word that readers never notice. Too many saids are as annoying as overly-dramatic tags, and readers will notice if you use it too often. How often is too often? You’ll have to play that by ear, and one way to do that is to read some dialogue-heavy portion of your writing out loud. If you feel self-conscious about reading aloud to an empty room (I certainly do, and I figure it’s probably not entirely idiosyncratic), ask your friend, spouse, or dog to listen. Your cat will probably fall asleep, which may affect your confidence.
Another ear-friendly method is to record yourself reading a scene or chapter, then wait a day—or at least overnight—and play back the recording. Excess saids and other awkward items will cry piteously for you to release them from their miserable existence.
Not every line of dialogue needs to be tagged. A well-written fictional conversation can go on for quite a few exchanges without the reader losing his way, especially if the characters have different ways of speaking and/or different goals for the conversation. See Part 6 of this series for an example of a conversation with very few dialogue tags spoken by three characters with three different goals for that scene. Well-written characters with strong intentions put their own stamp on their speeches, much like real people.
To get extra mileage from a dialogue tag, use it to get in a bit of stage business that either helps reveal character or moves the story forward.
“I’d help you look for him if I could,” Trey said, peering over Haldane’s shoulder for a better look at the paper. “I can’t leave town right now without bringing half the police force behind me.”
“He hasn’t been here in days,” Lexie said, letting her eyes slide off to her left, to the darkened hallway. “I’ll tell him you came by.”
Well-written dialogue spoken by well-drawn characters is the heart of any scene, and scenes are the building blocks of your fiction. A vital part of writing good, believable dialogue is knowing how to handle tags with skill and confidence.
Inspect your dialogue for labored tagging that tends to make it over-dramatic.
If every character in your scene is well-defined with a clear intention, you won't need many dialogue tags.
Use dialogue tags—sparingly—to improve rhythm, avoid confusion, include stage business.
Avoid tags like shrieked, sobbed, rasped, hissed, spat, commanded, and intoned. Really.
All the fabulous pulp magazine covers on this article series were created using the amazing Pulp-O-Mizer from art by its creator, Bradley W. Schenck.
Be sure to read the earlier Self-Editing for Everyone articles.
Part 1: The Most-Hated Writing Advice Ever
Part 2: Vampire Verbs, Zombie Verbs, and Verbs that Kick Ass
Part 3: Attack of the Adverbs!
Part 4: The Weakeners
Part 5: When Words Get in the Way
Part 6: Secrets of Relative Velocity
Part 7: Two Languages
Part 9: Dangling Modifiers
Part 10: Passive Voice
Part 11: Homophones
Part 12: Point of View Violations
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