One thing many first-time writers are self-conscious of is their dialogue tags. Authors are, rightly, cautious of repetition in their novel, and one of the most repeated words in any book that contains dialogue is ‘said’. There are numerous ways of writing around this dreaded word – but that’s often the wrong approach to take.
WHAT IS A DIALOGUE TAG?
A dialogue tag is a word that attributes a piece of dialogue to a speaker. If we wanted to inform the reader that it was Neeraj speaking, we’d use ‘said Neeraj’ to indicate this. If Hannah posed a question, we could write ‘asked Hannah’. Dialogue tags can also indicate the way in which someone speaks. If someone is furious, they might yell their dialogue, in which case we could write ‘yelled Marjan’.
Dialogue tags are functional. They tell us who is speaking. They do not primarily serve a creative purpose. Writers are often tempted to use dialogue tags to add flair to their writing, but this can have the opposite effect if alternatives to ‘said’ are used too frequently.
HOW SHOULD I USE DIALOGUE TAGS IN MY BOOK?
Dialogue tags should be invisible. They are used to draw your reader’s attention to the person speaking and to provide them with crucial information about who is speaking without breaking the immersive storytelling experience. Obviously, dialogue tags shouldn’t literally be invisible – we need the word printed on the page. But they aren’t the main event in a book, and they shouldn’t take up too much space on the page or in your reader’s mind.
Readers will absorb dialogue tags to ascertain the information they need (who is speaking) before moving on quickly to the meat of the text (the conversation taking place). If you’re using a variety of words to avoid the monotony of using ‘said’ repeatedly, you’re slowing your reader down. Instead of being able to quickly whizz past the dialogue tag (almost like it’s invisible), now your reader has to take in whatever verb you’ve used to replace ‘said’. This isn’t always a bad choice – you might want to draw your reader’s attention to a particular line of dialogue or the emotion of a character during a crucial moment – but it usually is. Using different dialogue tags for every line of dialogue quickly becomes tiresome and dull for readers. Why? Because they already know how the dialogue is being spoken. Your reader is informed by:
the topic of conversation
the lead-up to the conversation
the relationship between characters
the character’s backstory
the reader’s own interpretation of events
If someone is talking about the death of their beloved pet, it’s usually safe to assume that they will be feeling sad during the conversation. If we know that they’ve just been to an event they were looking forwards to, we’d expect them to be elated. If they are talking to someone who bullies them and is cruel, they might be feeling frustration, anger, helplessness, determination or some other emotion – what that character says to the bully will help the reader to understand what they’re feeling without the need for dialogue tags. If we have spent a lot of time with a character, we’ll also have a better grasp of their emotions and likely reactions. Then there’s the reader’s own interpretation of events. As much as authors should write with intent, there is no guarantee that a reader will read each scene or section the way that it was written. The way readers interpret each scene will depend on their own experiences and perspectives.
You shouldn’t have to tell the reader what to make of each piece of dialogue with fancy tags: find ways to show them the meaning. If the surrounding context isn’t enough to clue the reader in on the importance, atmosphere or underlying emotion of a conversation, then you have identified a problem in your story that no dialogue tag can fix.
WHEN SHOULD I USE SOMETHING OTHER THAN 'SAID'?
If a character mumbles, whispers or shouts, these could all be used in place of ‘said’. If someone asks a question, you should definitely use ‘asked’ to replace ‘said’.
“What do you want to do today?” said Aidan is incorrect. ‘Said’ expresses information as a statement: a question is not a statement. So, it should be, “What do you want to do today?” asked Aidan.
These are all acceptable instances in which an alternative can be safely used in place of ‘said’.
If you really want to highlight a particular moment or characteristic, you can use a dialogue tag other than ‘said’. Consider why you want to use something other than said: what is it you’re hoping to convey? Write your options out side-by-side and compare them. Is one really more effective than the other? If the answer is yes, then absolutely use your alternative dialogue tag. However, ensure that you’re not doing this too often and interrupting your story’s natural pace and narrative flow with excessive and unnecessary fancy alternatives to ‘said’. Remember, dialogue tags are primarily functional and should be used for clarity, not creativity.
I STILL FEEL SELF-CONSCIOUS ABOUT USING 'SAID'...
That’s okay – in many ways, it’s to be expected. Part of the process of writing is getting lost in your story to the point where it can start to feel like you don’t know what way is up anymore. Writers often have a distorted view of their own work because they are working on their story so closely. You’re more likely to be overly aware of the times you use ‘said’ in your story because of this. For your reader, it’s something they’ll read to help them make sense of the story, and they’ll have moved on to the next sentence in the blink of an eye.
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