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…

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WRITING: Over-Editing

Beginning writers have a tendency to over-write, producing bloated manuscripts with stories that feature redundant scenes, scenes that are shown instead of told (because they want to avoid the ‘show, don’t tell!’ admonition from their peers), and unnecessary storylines like excessively detailed mundane scenes in the lives of the characters.

So, beginning writers often get the advice to edit their work and bring down the wordcount to manageable numbers. While most manuscripts can lose 10% of their words without serious consequences, a writer can go overboard and edit out the parts that made the story shine, eliminating ‘scenes that do not forward the plot’ and robbing characters of the extra dimensions, reducing them to bland archetypes that fail to engage the reader.

The difficulty lies in the decision what to keep and what to weed out, and how to cull the dross from the scenes the writer wants to keep. In the area of what to keep and what to weed out, consider Elmore Leonard’s advice to ‘skip the boring parts’. Don’t write about going to bed or getting up, brushing teeth, doing the laundry, taking a bath, going to the toilet, are you eyes glazing over yet? What to keep? Keep descriptions succinct, trust the reader to fill in the unwritten parts. Describe only what is absolutely necessary for the reader to form a picture, but don’t embellish to fill in the reader’s ‘mind picture’ unnecessarily.

The ‘rule’ that scenes always have to ‘forward the plot’ is more a guideline [most writing rule are, but beginning writers tend to view ‘rules’ to be akin to ‘commandments’]. Scenes that help flesh out a character don’t need to ‘forward the plot’, as long as the writer doesn’t ramble too far from where the story is supposed to be going.

As an example from my own work–I received comments by an editor that my DEA characters weren’t as interesting as my protagonist. Although I could reiterate that it’s difficult for a DEA agent to be more interesting than a freelance assassin, the burden was on me to render a good girl as interesting as the bad girl. And I had. I had written a chapter and two follow up paragraphs where the DEA girl turns the tables on a mugger and the legal consequences of her righteous action versus Dutch law. Except that I had edited these scenes from the manuscript to reduce wordcount because ‘they didn’t forward the plot’. Well, yes, but they did flesh out the DEA character, which was important to get the reader to root for her also.

So, instead of wondering whether a scene ‘moves the plot forward’, analyze whether the scene brings a valuable contribution to the manuscript, so you won’t edit all the life from your manuscript in order to comply to a rule that might only be applicable to an action adventure with cardboard characters.

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