Articles / On Dialogue

Over the last few days, a picture has shown up in my Facebook timeline over and over again. The caption reads “190 Ways to Say ‘Said.’ ” Grammatical issues aside—the synonyms are actually all present tense, so they’re 190 ways to say say—it was causing a buzz in my timeline. If you’ve seen it, chances are you’ve had one of two reactions: 1) woo hoo, more synonyms or 2) oh no, creative dialogue tags to avoid. And after reading the comments, it seems like people are pretty much divided along those lines.

190 ways

There are those who believe said and asked are the only necessary dialogue tags ever required in a novel. Then there are those who feel they should be able to use whatever they want to describe everything in their written work. I’ve read comments from many students saying they’ve been taught that “said is dead” and they should try to be more creative in their writing. I absolutely agree with the second half of that statement.

However, as an editor, I tend to lean on the “less creative dialogue tags” side of the equation. Editors like words like said and asked and replied—words that describe ways of speaking—as opposed to words that could—maybe, possibly, but not necessarily—indicate speech. Why?

Well, like you’ve probably heard before, words like said and asked tend to become invisible to the reader, allowing her to focus on the dialogue… not the dialogue tag. But editors would also rather encourage the author to use creative, descriptive narrative to show the character sobbing and not state that someone cried. Editors will ask authors to describe why a character is angry and show examples of that anger in the narrative through actions and setting rather than use dialogue tags like screeched or howled.

Sure, it’s easy to say he cried, she screamed, she ordered, or he agreed. And yeah, most times it gets the point across. But what’s better—harder and more work—is taking the time to create the scene, to write the character, and show the character’s body language ordering or agreeing. Imagine how that would look…

Does any of this mean that you should never use words other than said or asked? No, of course not. The best part about being an author is choosing your own words. But what an editor wants you to do is to stretch your writing, think outside the box, and draw a picture for your reader instead of handing them the details on a silver platter.

With NaNoWriMo starting soon, I’d like our readers to think about their dialogue tags. Focus on one scene and write the narrative so that your readers will know exactly how your character says his words, even without a dialogue tag. How would your character act? What does his body language portray? Do his words match his mood? How can you describe this to the reader?

The more you do this, the more automatic it becomes and you’ll rely on creative dialogue tags less.

Happy writing!

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