I browse Pinterest quite a lot, and lately I’ve come across these super-helpful lists of dialogue tags. Different ways to say said, because “said” is so boring you really need to spice it up a bit, right?
You have to communicate exactly how a character is speaking, so phrases like “he mumbled” and “he demanded” and “she shouted” are a great way to do it — according to all these blog posts and pins.
Here’s the thing. This is the most misguided advice you’ll receive about writing dialogue.
I don’t know where or how it comes from, exactly. I really think people believe that “said” is boring. Trouble is, dialogue tags in fiction are more signposts than anything else. Their purpose is to guide the reader to understand who is speaking, and not much else. If a character is whispering or shouting or murmuring, your dialogue should convey that on its own, without the added explanation. If it doesn’t, the dialogue just isn’t good enough. Dialogue tags other than said (or “asked,” if a character is asking a question) are lazy. They’re a crutch used to shore up weak speech.
This person would disagree with me, but I think their disagreement comes from a misunderstanding about why anything or than “said” or “ask” is a red flag. They note most people will tell you that speech tags like “said” are invisible and that readers skip over them. But no! They say. They read very closely and pick up on all the speech tags. And in their anecdotal research, people report being annoyed by the repeated use of said in books, so how can it be invisible?
First, I’d say, it doesn’t matter if it’s invisible or not. Used correctly, phrases like “he said” and “she said” will be consumed subconsciously and orient you in the text — you don’t not notice them, but they shouldn’t stand out to you either.*
But yes, bad writers overuse even the simplest “he said” and “she said” and annoy the ever-living hell out of you. Good writers understand that dialogue tags are just sign posts, and use them so. If you’re on your way to California, you don’t need a sign pointing you to Los Angeles every three feet down highway 66 do you? Same goes for dialogue. Orient the reader, then let them talk. Cut the dialogue tags and get the hell out of your reader’s way.
Good dialogue can stand on its own, without explanation.
But who really cares if readers skip the tag, or don’t? I’m repeating myself here, but the real problem isn’t a writer using various words for said like “murmured” and “cried” and “whispered,” it’s that writers using those words in place of said are usually covering up bigger problems with bad dialogue. Good dialogue can stand on its own, without explanation. Bad dialogue needs those varied tags or the reader will get lost and, maybe worst, bored. There are times when, yes, “snapped” or “hissed” or “fumed” is the perfect tag to a piece of dialogue. It’s when the tag is an enhancement instead of a crutch. Most of the time however, said will do you just fine. No dialogue tag will probably do you finer.
*But seriously, if the repeated phrase of “he said” and “she said” is catching your attention every time you come across it, I think that says something — bad — about the way the text is written, namely that the dialogue those tags are attached to isn’t very good.
Featured image by Justin Goring. Some Rights Reserved.