Is Said Dead? Writing Dialogue Tags

If you’re a writer, you probably have heard the phrase “Said is dead” given as writing advice. When I search that saying, I come up with hundreds of blogs that offer alternatives to the word said. (I also come up with some song on the first page of results. Interesting.) People say that this particular dialogue tag is overused and overdone, and that writers should use more descriptive tags that show the speaking character’s emotions and that describe how the character is speaking.

The thing is? I don’t think said is necessarily dead.

Dialogue tags are a funny thing. “Said” is an invisible word. Your eyes gloss right over it while reading, and it’s like your brain barely registers that it’s there. That’s the beauty of this funny little four-letter dialogue tag. You can lose yourself in a book when your brain can forget that you’re actually reading.

Some writers think bigger, fancier verbs are better as dialogue tags. Sure, I think they can be used occasionally, even sparingly. The problem with constantly using bigger verbs as tags? It reminds the reader that they are reading. If you’ve set up the scene right, set up the characters’ emotions, readers don’t always need big words to tell them what the character is doing or how they are speaking.

The real purpose of dialogue tags? To simply tell the reader who is speaking. Sometimes, you don’t even need a dialogue tag if it’s clear who is speaking. You could surround, precede, or follow the dialogue with action. If two people are alternating speaking and it’s still clear who is doing the talking, you could drop some tags here and there. Here is an example from my book, The Days Without You, in which the characters Adam and Samantha are talking:

Samantha cleared her throat while her hands quickly mixed the drink order. It was almost an art, Adam thought, how fast she did it.
“Thanks for ditching me at the concert on Friday, by the way,” she said, her lips pressed into a thin line.
He held back a snort. “You’re welcome.”
“I’m serious. I couldn’t find you after the show. I tried calling you.”
“Had my phone on mute.”
Her lips puckered into an even thinner line, her eyes narrowing. “Seriously, I had to call my friend to pick me up.”
“Sorry, sorry. Had an incident during the show, had to help someone. I’ll make it up to you one of these days.”
Her puckering lips loosened into a smile. “Fine, you can take me to lunch one day.”

The Days Without You, pg. 18, Skylar Wilson

Again, as long as it’s clear who is speaking, you could technically drop some dialogue tags. But, bear in mind that said is invisible. Unless it’s absolutely necessary for the reader to know exactly how something is being said (i.e. the need for a more descriptive dialogue tag), use said or no tag at all. Use your best judgment to decide when to use said, no tag, or a stronger verb.

No, said is not dead.

One Comment

  1. Totally agree!!! Don’t even register the “said!” Have only recently seen “invisible dialog tags” and now this makes more sense. It is easy when it is clear WHO is speaking

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