Shop Mobile More Submit  Join Login

:iconmisslunarose: More from MissLunaRose

Featured in Collections

Journals by JDS-photo

dA Community Related by DorianHarper

Journals by Aspi-Galou

More from DeviantArt


Submitted on
January 21
Submitted with Writer


6,152 (5 today)
212 (who?)

I have horrifying news, everyone: I'm teaming up with Project Educate for Prose Week, so you inquisitive readers are about to fall victim to me and my terrible sense of humor. Today I'll be torturing you with a discourse on a subject of constant debate in the writing world: the word said. It's a simple word that encourages authors to write descriptively, but it's far from the only good choice when it comes to writing fluid dialogue.

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.

Said is Invisible by MissLunaHost

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."

:thumb410352352: by Luna--Doodles
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
Punctuating Dialogue
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

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
------Original Message------
"If you have Action and Dialogue, do you really NEED Description too?
What is the difference?"

The Layers of Fiction
Dialogue Only
"Himawari-chan, I have your lunch!"
"Ah, Watanuki-kun!"
"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?

Effective dialogue is not only about the words in between the quotes—dialogue tags and other identifiers, when used well, can turn good dialogue into vividly descriptive and engaging prose.
Add a Comment:
LoveRobin Featured By Owner Aug 29, 2014
Regardless of all of the above… If a reader finishes several pages, a chapter, or even a sequence and have not been "bumped out" of the story, or even *remembered* there were dialogue tags, the author has succeeded.
SunnyCatSplash Featured By Owner Apr 16, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
My old reading teacher would always yell at us for using the word "said" when we were writing dialogue and said it made us look like little kids or something and we should try to use more vivid word choices.... Now I'm a bit confused... :/ 
MissLunaRose Featured By Owner May 16, 2014   General Artist
My teachers also told me to avoid "said," and I believed them until I read professional writers' advice and realized that the word can be useful. :aww:

It's up to you whether you want to use it or not. There are tons of articles on the subject if you're curious. I quoted two of them in the resource.

I'm sorry about the late reply.
Mightymog Featured By Owner Jan 31, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
I use dialogue TOO much, I definitely nee to use more show

Well I used to continuously use he said, she said, which became extremely confusing especially if two people of the same gender were talking.
("I don't understand" he said,
 "That's OK, neither do I" he said)

The most important thing I have learnt... Hummmm. 1) not to use said
                                                                                   2) Dialogue doesn't always need dialogue tags/labels
                                                                                   3) My vocabulary is too vivid, I need to calm down  with my language :).
dragoeniex Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
I do think that something like: "Tom pulled her into his arms and nuzzled her cheek. 'I'm so glad you're back,' he murmured." - is more effective with "murmured" than "said."

I prefer a mix of "said," moderately-descriptive tags, and just leaving them off all-together. Also putting verbal sound effects into dialogue directly, when possible. Like having a character go "Mrrph" at another instead of just saying there was a grunt.
MissLunaRose Featured By Owner May 16, 2014   General Artist
I agree. :aww:

It's interesting that you write out grunts and things into dialogue; I had never thought of doing that. :)

I'm sorry about the late reply.
VFreie Featured By Owner Jan 26, 2014
"said" is the tag I use the most and yet I'm of the opinion that ditching "murmured" is a BS idea. Fancy that! :P More on this in a moment; in the meantime, thank you very much for an article that doesn't give in to hysterically prescriptive rules and admits that using something else than "said" is not always a capital crime.

Q & A:

1. How often do you use dialogue tags in your writing? Which types of tags do you prefer, if any?

I try to politely shun them. As much as I use it oftener than any other tag, "said" unnerves me a little; it's a dialogue line, I can see from myself that someone is talking. Personally, I prefer to mark up the speaker with context rather than with a tag, unless I have to throw in a descriptive verb for the sake of brevity or, well, description. I was taught that you should use the exact word, not its second cousin: so if someone asks a question, they're asking it, not saying it (hm, well, if possible I'd work a way to cut "ask" here because it's obvious that it is a question, but still). If someone whispers, I'll let them whisper and call it a whisper. Then there are style matters to complicate things. To make some basic examples: consciously ridic feral tags for comedic effect in which the speaker brays or chirps, or consciously understated dialogue in which the characters just "say" the most shocking and shriek-y things to each other. Depends on what your story needs, in the end.

2. How have your strategies regarding dialogue tags changed over time?

I stopped forever to write horrors like "laughed" as the dialogue tag. Lol nein. You either laugh or you speak. You don't do both things together. Urgh.

3. What is the most important thing you have learned in your life when it comes to using dialogue tags?

That I'm glad I wasn't schooled in an English-speaking country, since, from what I have just read in the other comments, many teachers seem to have a weird hate for "said" that runs much deeper than my slight annoyance discussed in point 1. :stare: Tbh, every writing advice column I've come across on this topic over the internet has been invariably pro-"said". Falling on the extreme of "thou shalt have no other tag than said", even.
Animus-Panthera Featured By Owner Jan 23, 2014  Hobbyist Artisan Crafter
I definitely tend to rely too much on dialogue tags... I think the best critique on my writing I ever got was, "The dialogue is great but you need to describe more." At least in my case, replacing a lot of the unnecessary dialogue tags with descriptions has definitely improved my writing. (Although I think I still use "said" way too much without thinking about it.)
KitaMikichi Featured By Owner Jan 23, 2014  Student General Artist
Thank you very much for the article!

 Though I do find it a little odd that descriptive verbs like "shrieked" are viewed as "telling" rather than "showing", I definitely see how using everything in the right mix can spice up your writing!
Frodofox Featured By Owner Jan 23, 2014  Hobbyist Traditional Artist
This was very helpful! What helped me understand what dialogue tags to use and when, was when some of my writer friends, who would review my writing, would highlight my overused words. Most commonly names and dialogue tags. When they're highlighted like that, you really see how many times you use a word!
Add a Comment: