This article by Joanne Grant is from the January 2021 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc.  (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership. 

“What’s the fuss all about?” she asked, quizzically.

There are lots of “rules” in writing and with them a hive of opinions and debates. In this article I am going to bravely wade in with some thoughts on the dialogue tag “rule,” which is this: only use the verb “said” unless absolutely necessary. Now the chances are, you will have strong feelings about this use of said, and are firmly in the “for” or “against” camp. However, if you’ve never given it much thought until now, then I want to say “I’m sorry!” Because it seems that when it comes to the humble verb “said” there is actually a lot to be “said” about it!

So what is the fuss all about? I am here to put your mind at rest, offer up some tips and suggestions, and I promise, there won’t be a “rule” in sight. Let’s start by looking into the basic arguments between using “said” versus more descriptive verbs in dialogue tags.

Put simply, a dialogue tag serves to show the reader who is speaking. It is a tool to orientate the reader and smooth their passage through the story.

Purists who argue for the use of “she/he/they said” only, do so because they believe anything else detracts away from the dialogue, action and intrudes on the story. Dialogue tags are functional and therefore should be “invisible” to the reader. There is also an additional argument that the use of alternative verbs, or heaven forbid, an adverb (see article tagline!) is at the best amateurish, or at the worse, just plain wrong.

On the flip side, those in the for camp could argue that relying on plain old “she/he/they said” is well, boring! It is creatively limiting when there is a wealth of verbs just longing to be whispered, muttered or shouted—why wouldn’t you want to pepper your prose with a little more flavour?

But which side am I on?
This argument made me think back to my school days where we were encouraged to find creative alternatives to “said” to expand our vocabulary and pep up our creative writing. I am sure the results were indeed “amateurish” and I can’t help but wonder whether the cringeworthy results of this language exercise have left a scar on some writers!

But as an editor, what do I think about dialogue tags? To be honest, I have never felt that strongly about them. That is because when they’re handled well, I hardly notice them—if they don’t bother me, I don’t bother them! I completely agree that their role is functional and can be near on invisible to the reader, but when I do notice them it’s usually because:

  • There is a lack of them and I have lost track of who is speaking—very annoying!
  • They jump out at me by being ill placed, irrelevant, or just plain bizarre!—and ruin the flow of the story.

Now, my research shows that not all editors will feel as neutral as I do about dialogue tags. This suggests that it is rather a question of personal taste, which is why rules simply cannot exist—it is subjective. As a writer, therefore, how do you navigate this potentially divisive terrain?

I always advise that you research the conventions of the genre you are targeting to give you a flavour of not only content, but also details such as verb usage in dialogue tags. Notice how they are executed, how frequently and whether it is a quirk of the writer, or if there is a convention across the genre. And if you find yourself reading for research but forgetting to notice dialogue tags, it’s likely because they have been handled beautifully. Go back and read with more detail to spot them!

Purpose and techniques
Once you’ve identified the preferred usage of dialogue tags it’s time to apply your learnings. Whether you’re in the “for” or “against” camp, it is still important to communicate clearly what your character is saying. The following examples can help you execute your chosen dialogue tag in an effective way.

Redundant tags
If you’re thinking of using a more descriptive verb or adverb, question whether they add information or meaning that isn’t obvious through dialogue and action. If nothing is added, it is likely redundant and you are in the dangerous territory of telling what you have already shown. Here is an example:

She slammed the door and glared at him. “How dare you talk to me like that?” she asked angrily.

The addition of the dialogue tag in this instance is redundant: “asked” due to the punctuation and “angrily” because it is clear from her actions that she is angry. As a result, the dialogue tag just adds words and potentially slows the pace of whatever the response will be. Using this type of action, followed by the dialogue can help eliminate the need for a dialogue tag entirely.

Aural tags
Whereas, if you want the reader to hear the dialogue and appreciate the volume of what is being said, for example, an aural tag such as “whispered,” “muttered,” or “shouted” can help. Not only can this bring dialogue to life in a way that isn’t obviously communicated through dialogue or action, it alters the meaning too.

There is a big difference between:

“I hate you!” she shouted.

“I hate you!” she whispered.

Obviously, the action around the dialogue will help to fill in the blanks, but If you were a purist, and simply went with “she said” then the action would have to do most of the talking. After all, the meaning of the words can be changed entirely depending on how they are delivered.

As you can see, there isn’t a right or wrong way! And plumping for “she/he/they said” only is actually more difficult that it may appear! Whatever side you end up on, and let’s be honest, there is a hybrid option available, it is all about finding what’s right to your author voice as well as the genre of fiction you are writing, and then finding a match with an editor who feels the same.

I appreciate it takes skill from the writer to execute tags in such a way that they fulfill their function and play an unobtrusive role and seamlessly bring the dialogue alive, but I can honestly say that I have never passed on a submission because dialogue tags—and you can quote me on that!