I'm going to be using the word dialogue tag often, so if you're unfamiliar with the word or just need a refresher, here's the definition:
Dialogue Tag—a phrase used in the same paragraph as a piece of dialogue, both (1) identifying the speaker and (2) using a verb to describe the speech. Examples of dialogue tags include Rose said, he begged, Adrian whispered, and she asked.
Get the picture? If so, great, and if not, you'd better Google it, because we're moving on.
Anything besides 'said' and 'asked' is lazy writing
—Rob W. Hart
The Uses of "Said"
Said is a common and unremarkable word (along with its friends "asked" and "replied"), which enables it to nearly disappear into the page. Readers skim over it, so it lets us quickly identify the speaker and move on.
Plain dialogue tags work well because they don't get in the way of the story, and they encourage you to follow the rule "show, don't tell." That's right: snazzy dialogue tags like "he chortled" and "she enthused" are telling. And if you're familiar with the rule, you'll know that merely telling about a character's emotions cheapens your writing and makes it more difficult for your readers to picture his or her emotional state. Avoiding these colorful tags forces you to indicate emotions through more descriptive means. That's why Rob Hart suggests we ditch "shrieked" and "murmured."
"Avoid said/asked dialogue tags.... Embellished dialogue tags—those using more descriptive verbs or, even worse, adverbs—come across as author intrusion."
—Kaye Dacus, arguing for describing actions instead
When is "Said" a Less Attractive Option?
"I love the view," Varsha said.
"I picked it with you in mind," Jeremy said. "I know how much mountains and outdoor seating, so I thought this table would be worth reserving."
"You're such a sweetheart," Varsha said with a smile.
The assassin watched them over her cup of coffee. "That sweet heart of his won't be beating much longer," she said.
As I'm sure you quickly noticed, an excess of the word said quickly dampens the drama and romance in this piece of dialogue. Repetition of any word can rapidly become dull, and that's one reason why I won't suggest that you erase all other dialogue tags from your vocabulary. Purists insist that the word said should be drilled into young writers' heads, but the emphasis on said often neglects the appeal of other methods of attribution.
You don't need dialogue tags.
Dialogue tags are not the only way to identify a speaker. For instance, you can describe a character's thoughts or actions in the same paragraph as the dialogue. This can be a highly effective way to show how a character feels, and it eliminates the need for a dialogue tag.
Jeremy bit his lip, fighting the anticipatory grin that wanted to spread across his face. He took a deep breath and fingered the smooth jewelry case hiding in his pants pocket. "Hey, do you want to hike up to the mountaintop when we're done? The view is even better from there."
Sometimes you don't even need to identify a speaker! If you're writing a conversation between two people, and there isn't much emotional drama or change going on, there's nothing wrong with letting the dialogue sit by itself for a paragraph or two.
Jeremy reached the mountaintop and bent over, his hands resting on his knees. "What a hike! I'm in worse shape than I thought."
Varsha's face melted into an expression of pure joy, and in that instant Jeremy knew it was all worth it. She exhaled, surveying the mountains and lake below. "It's gorgeous."
She stared at the clouds as a dreamy smile crept over her face. "I've never seen such pure colors in the sky and water! It would make a beautiful painting."
"Yeah. I thought it'd be the perfect spot."
Varsha blinked and turned to Jeremy. "Perfect spot? For what?"
Did that scene read clearly? Skim back over it: it has no dialogue tags at all.
Besides, sometimes you can totally pull off a descriptive dialogue tag.
See, here's the thing about showing and telling: telling isn't evil. And it's quick. So if you've already spent three sentences describing Amalia's joy upon being accepted into Harvard, it might not be worth spending the extra time to describe the precise pitch of her voice when you can simply toss in the word shrieked.
In addition, sometimes the precise nature of a character's emotional state isn't worth the time it takes to truly use "show, don't tell." The pace might be moving too quickly to dwell on much, or the character's emotions might be of minor importance. If a colorful dialogue tag jumps to mind,* don't immediately toss it into your mental trash can! Instead, consider if the tag adds to the story without being distracting, and if showing or telling would be more effective.
*Okay, not extremely colorful. Weird ones like "chortled" or "keened" might distract the reader, and most of them are really freaky to boot. If you're going to paint a picture that specific, you might want to try "show, don't tell."
This is how I look when people use dialogue tags to show off their vivid vocabulary.
In the end, what is the best choice? It depends on the context of your story. Simple dialogue tags subtly identify speakers, while more descriptive tags throw "show, don't tell" on its head for the sake of brevity. Forgoing dialogue tags can give you more room for description, or simply keep the pace moving.
The best part about writing is that there are very few "right" or "wrong" answers. There is no hard-and-fast rule to determine when to use "said" and when to use more descriptive language. Your personal style and circumstances will determine the choices you make. As a writer, you have an enormous box of tools to use as you please, and the way in which you craft your story and style is entirely up to you.
More Resources and Essays on Dialogue
Writers Notes - Dialogue
Dialogue is the speech between characters. It is when the narrator (you) stops telling the story and the characters speak instead.
Here's some pointers regarding dialogue writing:
Never write dialogue like real-life speech. Why? Because if you listen to real-life speech it is littered with umms and ahhs and errs. Anyone who has ever sat through a meeting or an assembly listening to someone droning on umming and ahhing will know just how frustrating it is. The last thing you want is to inflict that on your reader.
Real life also has moments where you completely forget what you're saying or get side tracked and run off on a tangent or get interrupted. Now all these things can be added to dialogue but in small amounts. We all know someone in life who constantly interrupts us when we talk, they can't wait for your part of the conversation to end so they talk over you. Fine, have a char
For non-native English speakers and young readers: If you hover over a blue word, you'll see its definition.
Punctuating dialogue can be surprisingly difficult, even for people whose first language is English. It's one of the things that you see all the time in books, but you pay little attention to, and all your English teachers assume that you already know it. Sure, if you read a lot, you pick up the basics, but even then it can be difficult to unconsciously absorb all the rules. (Until 2012, I was making heinous mistakes with commas vs. periods. I'm still weeding out errors from my novel.)
Anyhow, for the sake of my fellow spirits who bemoan the lack of proper dialogue education, I've researched the subject and compiled this little guide. I hope that it answers your questions, and that it isn't too dull.
Note: I use American English. Other English-speaking countries may have slightly different rules.
Anatomy of Dialogue
I'm going to be using these term
An Argument for "Said"Preface:
Before reading this argument, I want to explain that the following principle applies primarily to writings of the English language. Although it may apply to others as well, I have learned through the comments below that at least in German and Russian this principle is reversed. Therefore, this is a principle of culture and linguistics, and unless you are planning to write in English, you should look to writers of your own language before making any decisions on the matter. That being said, on to the argument.
An Argument for "Said:"
When writing dialogue, one of the necessary elements is the use of "dialogue tags," which identify who is speaking (hence their other name, "identifiers"). They're pretty easy to recognize, but just so we're clear, here are a few examples with the tags in bold:
"It's quite sunny today," she said.
"Release her, you fiend!" he roared.
The Secret to Paragraphing
The SECRET to Proper Paragraphing
(NOT a punctuation article.)
Once you know what your characters and doing and saying, how do you get all that down on Paper without ending up with a huge confusing mess?
Putting the Story on Paper.
Everybody knows that when a new speaker speaks they get a new paragraph, right? In other words, you DON'T put two different people talking in the same paragraph. Okay, yeah, so anyone who has written any kind of fiction learns this pretty darned quick, (usually from their readers.)
What nobody seems to get is that the same goes for a new character's ACTIONS. Seriously, when a new character ACTS they're supposed to get their own paragraph -- even if they don't speak!
In short, you paragraph by change in CHARACTER -- not because they speak, but because they ACT. Ahem... Dialogue is an ACTION. In other words, the reason you don't put two different characters' Dialogue
Quick Tips to Child DialogueThese are more like observations in no particular order or consequence (and again, don't apply to every character), but should come in handy with bringing your character to life. Best of luck!
The younger the child, the more intimate the dialogue.
Consider the difference between a five-year-old child calling his mother "Mommy" and a teenager using "Ma" or "Mother".
Nicknames are important.
They also indicate a closeness between characters or an affinity for another character.
Important things are given important names.
There is a good reason that the child's favorite stuffed dinosaur is named Mr.Dino.
Young children tend to use their own terms to describe something if they don't know the proper term.
Until the child learns the proper term for a magazine, it's a "floppy picture book."
Save the bigger words and the more intelligent speech for the older child.
Younger children have a limited vocabulary because their experience is limited. Ther
The LAYERS of Fiction
"If you have Action and Dialogue, do you really NEED Description too?
What is the difference?"
The Layers of Fiction
"Himawari-chan, I have your lunch!"
"Here you go Himawari-chan!"
"Thank you, Watanuki-kun!"
"You are very welcome, Himawari-chan."
"I see. Of course. Thank you, Yuuko-san. Do I need to tell you what she said?"
"No! No, you don't, and I don't want to hear it! I don't need a freaking baby-sitter!"
"Yuuko thinks you do."
"That's her! Not me!"
"Are you a fortune-teller?"
"No! Of course not!"
"I'll come get you after class. I'll get the instructor to let you wait while I practice."
"What? No! I said I don't want to wait !"
"You gonna eat that?"
"Yes I am!"
"I do not, not, NOT take orders from you!"
This is "Talking Head Syndrome." There are no dialogue tags, because I don't use them.
Questions for Readers
1. How often do you use dialogue tags in your writing? Which types of tags do you prefer, if any?
2. How have your strategies regarding dialogue tags changed over time?
3. What is the most important thing you have learned in your life when it comes to using dialogue tags?