Rebecca Graf is a seasoned writer with nearly a decade of experience and degrees in accounting, history, and creative writing.
The most used dialogue tag is “said." I am astounded at how many of us writers use it over and over to the point of it ruining the story. After nearly every piece of dialogue, a writer puts in "he said" or "she said." This gets very old after a while and even gives the piece a juvenile appearance.
Dangers of the Overuse of Certain Words
Some might wonder what is the big deal about using said so much when tagged with dialogue. It's just one little word. That might be true, that one word can make a big difference. Here are two very big results of overusing "said":
Overuse of this dialogue tag can make your writing sound childish. Ever hear of the Dick and Jane books? They were school books many decades ago used to help children look to read. A lot of the stories went like this:
Dick ran. Jane sat down. "Look over there," Jane said. "Where?" Dick asked.
While I seriously doubt your writing is that elementary, it can start to sound like this when you use said with every single dialogue piece. Remember that the dialogue alone tells the reader someone said something. You don't have to tell them the obvious. Instead, use words that enhance the dialogue instead of bringing it down to the kindergarten level.
Reflects Badly on Author
Overusing "said" can look badly on you. Truthfully, if I read a story that uses the dialogue tag too much, I get bored easily. That means I might not finish the book or take too long to finish it. The review will reflect that. Show readers that you have a mature sense of writing style and give them excitement instead of boredom.
There are many other ways to say the same thing, and those other ways can be so much more descriptive and give the story depth. In other words, there are alternatives.
There are simple replacements: replied, answered, stated, remarked. These say the same thing but stop the redundancy. It doesn't feel as much like a Dick and Jane book. These are words you can use to vary how the words sound, but they still might not do the job of really enhancing the story.
Some authors suggest avoiding dialogue tags altogether which would eliminate the too much ‘said’ problem. I think not having them with every piece of dialogue could be a good thing, but tossing them completely out might be a really bad thing. These tags can be very beneficial when you find other words to use instead of ‘said’.
“The train will be here before he gets the job done,” Jack said.
Depending on the rest of the writing before and after this sentence, we probably know who said it. Dialogue tags work better if there would be confusion as to who said what. Let’s assume in this example we need it, but we’ve used ‘said’ enough as it is. We don’t want our readers to think we have a limited vocabulary.
This is where we need to know our character and the situation he is in. What is Jack’s emotional state? If he is excited, you could say ‘Jack exclaimed’. What imagery does that give you? If you had used "said", then it doesn't have the emotional energy in it that "exclaimed" does. Your mind creates an entirely different view of Jack talking. Other words for this emotion would be shouted, pointed out, insisted. Is he angry? Then use barked, spat, snarled.
Notice how the replacement words become descriptive of the action instead of stating the action. We know Jack said the words. The scene makes that clear. The quotation marks told us that, but how did he say them. Give us an idea of his emotion so we can hear the words. ‘Said’ is bland. ‘Snarled’ gives the words a whole new meaning. We see his lips curled and his eyes narrowed. The writer doesn't have to give all those descriptions of him using "snarled". The tone of words change. Everything about what he said has taken on new meaning.
Why You Should Self-Edit "Said"
When you are editing your own work, focus on how many times you use ‘said’. Go through and replace every other one with a different word that better fits the emotion and mood of the dialogue and speaker. That one "small" change can give depth to your story.
Also, see how you can remove the dialogue tag completely and just show the actions of the character. Maybe show a facial expression or something that enhances the scene instead of being repetitive or states the obvious.
Future Writer on October 27, 2017:
Kari Poulsen from Ohio on September 07, 2017:
Great advice. :)