WRITING: Dialogue and the ‘Said’ rule

After someone had read an article on Writing World on the abuse of dialogue tags, there was a discussion on Quora whether the dialogue tag ‘said’ was the best and only tag.

This is what I had to say on the subject:

The main reason for the ‘said’ rule, is that ‘said’ is invisible.

If you write a whole page of dialogue, readers need to be able to distinguish between the speakers.
There are several ways of doing that:

  • action tag: Peter threw the mug across the kitchen. “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.”
  • name of the character in the dialogue: “Don’t ever talk to me that way again, Mary.”
  • distinctive speech pattern: “D-don’t ever talk to m-me that way again.”
  • inserting ‘stop’ words particular to the character. “Like, you know, don’t talk ever talk to me that way again, you know?”
  • dialect: “Don’ evah talk t’me them way agin.”
  • emphasize the words: “Don’t. Ever. Talk. To. Me. That. Way. Again.”


If you need to add a speech tag, ‘Peter said’ is pretty invisible. It’s similar to a stage direction:
(Peter:) Don’t ever talk to me that way again.

The other part of the rule is that novice writers are tempted to pimp up their speech tags instead of the dialogue.

  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter hissed.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter threatened.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter yelled.
  • “Don’t ever talk to me that way again,” Peter bellowed.


If you need to increase the impact of a dialogue and you cannot think of a way to change the dialogue, adding an action tag is better than changing the speech tag from ‘said’ to ‘threatened’.

 

The twinkle disappeared from Peter’s eyes and he stepped closer. His voice was low, almost a growl. “Don’t ever talk to me that way again.”


Every rule can be broken, but most can be circumvented…

 

My Quora answer was re-blogged on several other blogs, most specifically on Reference For Writers, so I figured it was time to give it an article page on my own blog…

If you think other people could benefit from this information, please share this post using the social media buttons below.

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15 Comments on “WRITING: Dialogue and the ‘Said’ rule”

  1. datmama4 says:

    “I can’t believe I’m the first comment on this post!” I gasped. “I’m going to run over to Google + to tell all my friends to stop pimping up their speech tags!”

    Like

    • Funny, it think you intended that ‘I gasped’ as a speech tag, but it reads like a ‘beat’, which is allowed. It would’ve been wrong if you had written:
      “I can’t believe I’m the first,” I gasped. “The first to comment on this post!”

      Like

  2. I am sometimes tempted to use the hissed and such, but most stick out like a sore thumb in the edit process. I won’t swear there are none, but I will hope there isn’t.

    Like

    • I won’t comment on the occasional ‘hissed’ or ‘whispered’ or ‘yelled’ or even ‘murmured’, but I don’t want to read any speech tags like ‘intoned’, ‘extrapolated’, ‘breathed’ or, the worst offender, ‘explained’.

      Like

  3. Sherry Ellis says:

    This is very good advice! I was tempted once to use, “hissed.” I’m glad I didn’t!

    Like

    • There are exceptions to every rule, so it’s not mandatory to use ‘said’, but those writers who feel they need to use alternatives because readers might get bored by the repetitive verb ‘said’ can rest comfortably in the knowledge that this is one speech tag that’s as close to invisible as possible.

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  4. PaperbackDiva says:

    I’m with you on the invisibility of ‘said’. I hate when people tried to synonym it endlessly. Or worse, use actions. She sputtered. He blasted. She vowed. He ejaculated.

    Like

    • The thing is, when 90% of your dialogue tags are ‘said’ the 10 of non-said dialogue tags will be accepted without question, especially if you only use the alternative tags if ‘said’ wouldn’t fit. Like with ‘whispered’ or ‘yelled’. But the alternatives seem ‘self-conscious’ if they’re just in the text to avoid repeating ‘said’.

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  5. elletodd says:

    Once again, excellent advice!

    Like

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