Said Is (Not) Dead

“Said is dead.”

“Always use said.”

Contradictory advice in the writing community is common. But really, how does one write a good dialogue tag?

Well, first and foremost, the purpose of a dialogue tag is to tell the reader which character is speaking. That’s it. For that purpose, said is actually the best word to use. It’s a nearly invisible word, like the or and. The problem comes when you use said on every piece of dialogue.

“Hey, John, where are you going?” Alexa said.
“To the store,” John said.
“Can you get some eggs?” Alexa said.
“Sure. Anything else?” John said.

In that example, only the first piece of dialogue needed any kind of tag because it’s clear who is speaking. And the repetition of said is boring.

But what if we want to use synonyms for said? Sure, you can do that.

“Hey, John, where are you going?” Alexa questioned.
“To the store,” John shouted.
“Can you get some eggs?” Alexa requested.
“Sure. Anything else?” John wondered.

It’s marginally better, but still a little boring. If you’re just replacing said with replied, asked, stated, etc, you’ll end up overusing those words instead. It is still repetitive.

So how do we keep it interesting? You could try adverbs to describe how the dialogue is spoken.

“Hey, John, where are you going?” Alexa said confusedly.
“To the store,” John said loudly.
“Can you get some eggs?” Alexa requested.
“Sure. Anything else?” John wondered aloud.

Using adverbs helps, but can become repetitive even faster than synonyms for said. Go ahead and use them from time to time, but keep it to a minimum.

My preferred way to keep your reader engaged, though, is to use action beats. These little nuggets can add so much more information than either synonyms or adverbs.

“Hey, John! Where are you going?” Alexa glared at the man who had just stormed to the door.
“To the store!”
“Can you get some eggs?” Melissa sheepishly handed him some money.
“Sure. Anything else?” John scowled at the others in the room.

Whoa! This simple exchange just became much more intense. And there are other people in the room? Who knew?

Now try this:

“Hey, John, where are you going?” Alexa glanced to her roommate, who was standing near the door.
“To the store.”
“Can you get some eggs?” Melissa handed him some money.
“Sure. Anything else?” John looked at the others in the room.

I’ve changed the entire tone of the conversation, just by adjusting the action beats. I haven’t used a single dialogue tag, including said. You’ll also notice that I didn’t put anything to indicate John is speaking, and yet you still know it’s him. Be careful using action beats on every piece of the conversation, though, or you’ll end up with characters who are constantly raising an eyebrow, standing, sitting, smiling, crossing the room, raising an eyebrow again—wait, is this the same eyebrow? Did they put it down? You see the problem. It’s exhausting to read about a character who is moving too much.

And that’s the crux of it. You don’t want to become repetitive. Mix up your dialogue tags, use action beats, add an occasional adverb, and sometimes just let the dialogue stand alone. As long as your reader knows who is speaking and you’re not repeating yourself in the narrative, you’re doing it right.

One thought on “Said Is (Not) Dead

Add yours

  1. Thank you for this post, Rachel! Said is not dead. I totally agree. The thumbnail hooked me on, to be honest. When you’re reading Mary McCarthy and she goes “she asseverated” after a line of dialogue, you have to stop reading and go to the dictionary. Thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

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