Dialogue

Why Said Is Absolutely Not Dead

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During the many long hours I have spent procrastinating on Pinterest, I have noticed a disturbing trend. “SAID IS DEAD,” the pins proclaim. “R.I.P SAID!”

Gentle readers, allow me to come to the defense of this most humble of dialogue tags. I, for one, am not ready to put it in the ground.

Said is a perfectly adequate word. Actually, it’s more than adequate; it’s the one you should use most often when attributing dialogue. You don’t want your characters to always be bellowing or whispering or hissing or snapping.

Take, for example, the following passage:

“I can’t believe he said that,” Jason fumed.
“I know,” Sarah deadpanned. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Is that what he really thinks?” he grumbled.
“It’s hard to say. Maybe?” she equivocated.

It’s over the top, right? It’s kind of like watching hammy actors in a B movie.

On the other hand, said is unobtrusive. Said lets you know who’s talking without getting in the way of things. Said is like that waiter at a high-class restaurant who quietly fills your glass without you noticing.

Now, that’s not to say you should never use more descriptive attributions. But you should keep them in your toolbox until you really need to make an impact. All words must serve the story. When it comes to dialogue, 90 percent of the time what really matters is what the characters are saying, not how they’re saying it.

At the same time, you can’t overload your dialogue with said, because that gets repetitive. Balance is key. As for how to find that balance? Let’s get into that.

DROP THE ATTRIBUTIONS

You don’t always have to identify which character is speaking, especially if the scene only involves two people. Your readers are smart people. They don’t need you to hold their hand. Just trust that they can follow along with the action.

Let’s use the above dialogue as an example. Clearly, Jason is upset about something. Sarah, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to have much invested in the conversation; the attributions tell us she is bored and noncommittal. There’s a problem, though. The attributions also bog down the dialogue. Cutting a few of them can work wonders.

“I can’t believe he said that,” Jason fumed.
“I know. It’s ridiculous,” Sarah said.
“Is that what he really thinks?”
“It’s hard to say. Maybe?”

I retained one descriptive dialogue tag and swapped another for said, but by dropping the rest of them, the dialogue feels much snappier, doesn’t it? It flows more like a real conversation.

WRITE TONE INTO THE CHARACTERS’ WORDS

In real life, we don’t have dialogue tags to tell us how people feel. They reveal their emotions through the words they use and their tone of voice. And so it should be in fiction. The best way to tell a reader how a character says something is to show it. Much as tone can be conveyed in narration, so, too, can it be conveyed through dialogue. It’s all about choosing the right words.

“Are you kidding me? I can’t believe he said that!” Jason fumed.
“Yeah,” Sarah said. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Is that seriously what he thinks of me? After everything I’ve done for him?”
“Beats me. I don’t really know him that well.”

In this scene, Sarah still sounds neutral, but Jason sounds a lot more disbelieving, angry, and hurt. “Is that what he really thinks?” could be referring to anything — but “Is that seriously what he thinks of me? After everything I’ve done for him?” has a clear meaning. The reader can hear the disbelief and the indignation in the words.

COMPLEMENT DIALOGUE WITH ACTION

The more you write, the more you’ll realize that dialogue tags are largely unnecessary. This is because you should be blending action with your dialogue. What are your characters doing as they talk? Is there anything happening around them while they converse? Blending action with dialogue lends dynamism to the scene and shows your reader who your characters are, how they relate to the people around them, and how they react to their surroundings.

Jason slammed the heel of his palm into the doorframe. “Are you kidding me? I can’t believe he said that!”
“Yeah.” Sarah hadn’t moved from her chair. She sat there, legs crossed, studying her fingernails. “It’s ridiculous.”
“Is that seriously what he thinks of me? After everything I’ve done for him?”
Sarah shrugged. “Beats me. I don’t really know him that well.”

Here, Jason’s anger is more manifest, as is Sarah’s disinterest in the conversation. Note, also, that I blended all three components discussed above: writing the tone into the characters’ words themselves, dropping attributions, and complementing the dialogue with action. This creates a richer, more layered scene.

Mastering dialogue isn’t easy, but hopefully these three strategies will help you out. Do you have any tips of your own to share?